Week 33 – Romania Week 1 – the Danube Delta and the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

Pelicans flying alongside us at the Danube Delta

We are late with the blog post this week. We arrived into Romania with only a vague idea where we were going… that spur of the moment decision to buy a house in Bulgaria (Week 32 – Bulgaria – We bought a house in Palamartsa! (and then went back on the road) has been a huge distraction.

Well I guess it’s not surprising that we couldn’t stop talking and thinking about it….Stuart on the wonders of cob wall building, me on how I can shamelessly lift the decor ideas we saw at Wild Thyme Farm and pass them off as my own.

But now we are back on the road and we really need to focus on the travels ahead…Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, the Baltics, Scandinavia and then the grand finale, the Faroes and Iceland.

But back to Romania. We planned to have two weeks here and arrived having done little or no research on where to go or stay. The only concrete plan was to get to the Danube Delta. That’s been number one on Stuart’s wishlist for the trip from the very start. Other than that, we were open to ideas which is precisely what we said to the border guard as we crossed over from Bulgaria. He seemed delighted to be consulted and between his suggestions and those of his five colleagues who pored over our map with us, we came up with a route taking us up the Black Sea coast to the delta, then north to the Bucovina region, famous for its painted monasteries and then west to the Maramures, famed for its remoteness. So a good mix of culture and scenery, what could be better? Well, the weather for a start.

We left the sun behind us in Bulgaria and set off with grey skies above and flat landscape surrounding us.

It was the flattest landscape we’ve driven through so far on our big trip, even more so than the Spanish mesete. For miles and miles, there was nothing between us and the horizon except a patchwork of green pastures and bright yellow rapeseed fields.

It was really, really quite ….


Just past the Black Sea city of Constanta, we stopped off to visit the ruins at the ancient Greek city of Histria. There isn’t much left of it now which is probably why the trip photographer was more interested in photographing the thatchers busy on the picnic area roof.

We pressed on to the Danube Delta where the river flows into the Black Sea forming a vast wetland of lagoons, lakes and streamlets. Stopping at a campsite overnight on the way up, we met a couple from the UK who had just come from there. They advised on a campsite we could stay at where the owner also offered guided boat trips and they braced us for the cost. It would be about 100 euro for a three hour trip, not cheap, though we all agreed that was fair enough the locals made their money from the tourists in the very short tourist season.

The birds are the main attraction at the delta and we saw birds aplenty on our trip, starting with this fellow…

…a hoopoe on the campsite fence before we even set off….

….to where the campsite owner had moored his boat. We got kitted up..

…got on board….

…and set off through the lagoons.

…where we saw…

…egrets and eagles and herons and…..

…pelicans galore.

That was the best part. We were able to get very close to these birds which look like prehistoric creatures…

… and seemed so ungainly as they galloped across the surface of the water..

..then so graceful as they took flight.

It was freezing cold the day we went out. Our guide was a taciturn sort of chap, not given to much in the way of chatter so, for me anyway,  three hours was more than enough time to be out on the water.  Heading for home along the open water, a motor cruiser came past us at speed. Our guide slowed right down till it passed and then manoeuvred the boat at a right angle across the cruiser’s sizeable wake…

….something this less experienced boatman didn’t do.

We headed to the rescue. Stuart, stopping only to take this pap shot of him sinking in the icy river,  lent a hand to try to right his craft but no joy. It’s motor was weighing it down so he had no choice but to tie it to a tree and come back to shore with us to enlist more help.

Aside from that bit of excitement, while I was happy with the bird quotient, Stuart left the delta feeling like we really hadn’t experienced or seen as much of it as he’d hoped. Of course, maybe if we’d done more research…another time, another trip perhaps.

Back on the road, we set off on the 200 mile trip north to the southern Bucovina region which borders with the Ukraine, travelling through more flat landscape….

…crossing the ferry over the Danube …

…and while the roads were a lot better than anything we’d seen in Bulgaria and the houses were a lot bigger, the striking feature of driving in Romania was the number of horse drawn carts on the road.

And we finally did find out why the horses all had a red tassle on their harness. Romanians, we were told, are deeply superstitious and the red tassle is to ward off the evil eye.

To break the journey to Bocovinia, we stopped overnight at a campsite near the salt mine of Targu Ocna. A salt mine – that’s something we haven’t seen yet on our trip. We decided to take a look.

We boarded the bus, just like a normal bus into town, except this time our journey was 240 metres below ground….

….which is pretty dark…

…until you reach the main tunnels where there’s everything a well equipped salt mine should have…

…like a church…

…and a gym…

…and a coffee shop, though most people seemed to have brought their own picnic and were just sitting around and breathing. Apparently a few hours spent in a salt mine is very good for your asthma though way less convenient than a puffer.

Then after a salt mine selfie…

….it was back on the bus above ground…

..and off on the second leg of our big stomp to Suceava where for two days the weather was lousy. It lashed rain. But after two days of long drives, it was quite nice to have an excuse to spend the afternoon in the van,  watching old movies…

…and colouring in.

Yes, this was finally the time to dig out a Christmas present from daughter Ciara and find out for myself what the adult colouring book craze is  (or was?) all about.

So here’s me staying within the lines mindfully.

And then when I finished, I meditated on what people do with their completed works.  Maybe keep it as a diary of where you were that day. Then chuck it in a mindful way.

Our purpose in coming to Bocovinia was to see the region’s vividly colourful painted monasteries. They date back to the 15th century and are famous because of the colourful frescoes which cover the outside walls and depict religious stories and biblical characters.

We decided we would get more out of it if we went with a guide so found Sorin Fodor through his website The Painted Monasteries of Bocovinia.

It was a good call. Sorin drove us to see four of the UNESCO protected monasteries, at Voronet, Moldovita, Sucevita and Arbore. He brought the frescoes to life for us, pointing out the biblical characters depicted…

….like the Queen of Sheba …

…and explained the religious scenes shown, like this one where the monks are working their way up the ladder of 34 virtues. Behind them the angels are whispering moral support, dangling a golden crown as the enticement to get to the top.

And he’s made it. The chap at the top gets the crown and a nice certificate by the look of it.

But just as we have found throughout our travels, the benefit of booking a guide is you get the chance to talk to a local about life in their country.

And so it was with Sorin. We heard from him about the strength of the Eastern Orthodox church in Romania.  Attendance at Sunday mass is generally high and there is apparently still high demand from young men and women to become priests and nuns.

He also talked to us about life under Ceacesceau’s regime and his recollection of the infamous Decree 770. This was the oppressive law enacted in 1966 to force population growth by banning contraception and abortion. Sorin recalls how he and his 14-year old schoolboy friends would titter as their female classmates were taken off for the monthly pregnancy check.  If the test was positive, the young girl was monitored by the police till she gave birth to ensure she did not try to terminate the pregnancy herself.

Reading more about the policy later, it seems Ceausescu did achieve his aim. By 1969 Romania had a million more babies. But his policy also resulted in untold number of deaths from botched backstreet abortions, orphanages filled with unwanted children and – be careful what you wish for – a new generation of twenty-something year olds to lead the revolution which resulted in the execution of Ceausescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day in 1989.

After our tour of the monasteries, we headed back over the hills to Suceava..

…stopping off for some souvenirs….

…to pack up and head west to the Maramures region, hoping to see a more remote, more picturesque part of Romania.

Week 32 – Bulgaria – We bought a house in Palamartsa! (and then went back on the road)

This week we bought a £4,500 house in Bulgaria, spent three days clearing it out then drove to Romania to continue our trip. That’s the short version.

This post gives the longer version but I appreciate the story of someone else’s house purchase is a bit like hearing about someone else’s dreams – every detail fascinating to the narrator but deeply tedious to the listener (as I well know from the glazed expressions received when I can’t resist recounting mine). So do please feel free to leave now and we will catch up again next week when we are back on the road.

Before you go, here are some photos of the outside of the house and the main road leading to it…

That’s the main road to the house – the entrance is through the green door

And for those still with us, here’s how we came to buy it in just 12 days from first viewing to unlocking the front door as the new owners.

First off,  we weren’t quite as spontaneous as the couple we met this week who bought a house in the same village  in an eBay auction. They were still in the UK, had never travelled to Bulgaria before and the bidding followed an evening in the pub. That was about six years ago and they have been coming to their new home regularly ever since. So no blurry hangover regrets there then.

By contrast we were actually in Bulgaria when the idea of buying a house in the country struck. We were about two weeks into our travels here and all the negative views we had of the country before arriving had evaporated.

But why negative in the first place?

Well it was mainly down to what we had heard from fellow travellers before we came. Gill and Chris from the UK (we met them first in Morocco and then caught up with them again in Greece) had the very nasty experience of being robbed on their first day in Bulgaria. Thieves broke into their motorhome while it was parked up in a supermarket car park and they lost a laptop, handbag, GPS, wallet. As they said, it is all stuff which can be replaced but understandably it left a sour taste.

And a week or so after hearing about their experience of Bulgaria, we were chatting to a German couple on a Greek campsite about their travels. They were taking their second circuit of the whole of Europe by motorhome, except for Bulgaria or Romania.  They told us they would not go to either country because of ‘the crime and the dirt’. Their damming comments were then repeated to us by another couple of veteran motorhomers a few days later.

All in all, these stories (albeit two from people who had never even visited the country!) meant we weren’t in the best frame of mind about Bulgaria as we crossed over the border from Greece. Nevertheless we decided to focus on seeing as much of rural Bulgaria as we could hence our stays at Wild Farm in Gorno Pole….

…and Wild Thyme Farm in Palamartsa.

In between we stayed at the lovely Camping Velika Tarnova and had a great few days on the Black Sea coast in Varna. The positive stories from the ex-pats we met, the friendliness of the locals, the beautiful (and clean!) countryside, the glorious sunshine, the good food…..they cancelled out all the negative stuff we’d heard. Add to that the possibility of buying a home in the sun for the price of a car back home? So we were already starting to think on those lines when Claire from Wild Thyme was called on by her neighbour Dara.

Dara wanted to sell her house. Stuart was off in the woods foraging but there was no harm in me having a quick look…

Claire acted as translator in the first viewing – how much did Dara want to sell it for. She wanted £4,500. Most of important question of all, was she in a position to sell i.e. was she the sole owner? This is crucial given that many so properties in Bulgaria prove impossible to sell because of the multiple family owners (thanks to inheritance) are scattered round the world.

Yes she was….here’s the key document you need when buying a house in Bulgaria.

It’s the original ownership document which shows that Dara had legal title to sell.

Inside it was hard to believe that parts of the house were just 35 years old. The walls and floors are mainly made of cob which is a mixture of straw and clay and the roof is made from green oak beams with clay tiles. The same building materials and building style has been in use in the village for many years.

If we went for it, some clearing out  would be needed. And a bathroom – there is no toilet in the house.

And definitely some new wiring.

What’s that famous Oscar Wilde misquote about wallpaper? Yep, that would definitely have to go.

Then Stuart came along to have a look….

Here he is deciding that if we did go for it, we’d need some windows in the back. Bulgarians sensibly never put windows on north facing walls because of the severely cold winters but to make the most of that fabulous view we need a couple in here.

And that was the big selling point…the great view out the back. We were sold.

The next day we met up with Mel from Living The Dream Bulgaria. From Wales originally, she has settled in the village with her husband John and is in the business of selling properties in the area. Mel agreed to act as our agent to sort all the formalities which involved:

  • passing Dara’s and our identity documents to the solicitor in Popovo – the nearest town to Palamartsa;
  • ordering a new skitza from the municipality – that’s the plan of the property; and
  • ordering the government valuation document which sets the tax payable on the property.

Within a few days, everything was in hand except the government valuation document. The relevant person dealing with that at the municipality was ill and there was also the May Bank Holiday Monday in the way so that meant a delay of  one day. One whole day to wait….

We did more touristy stuff….

…like visiting the Aladzha Monastery in the cliffs…

…and driving out to Cape Kaliakra where we hoped to see the moving statutes (and I don’t mean in the Ballinaspittle sense) of the local girls who tied their hair together and jumped to their death to avoid the marauding Ottomans. We did an about turn when we saw the bank holiday traffic. These statues would have to suffice.

And then it was back to Palamartsa where we heard the good news that the sale was ready to complete. That involved travelling back to Popova with Mel and Dara…

…visiting the solicitor to provide our original identity documents, visiting the bank to transfer the purchase funds to Dara and then all of us attending at the notary’s office to confirm officially that we had now paid the funds, Dara had received them and we could now be formally registered as the new owners.

After a spate of signing copy documents, we had completed on the sale. The whole process took no more than a couple of hours and we were now the owners. The only thing left to do was return to Popova the following day to collect the new ownership documents. All in all, the total cost was £5150 including the cost of the house, agent and lawyer’s fee plus the updated legal documents.

It was astoundingly efficient.

Back at the house, we helped Dara move out the last of her stuff….

….and gave her a wee something from home.

….and carried on with the clearout of the house, though my efforts ground to a screeching halt when I pulled up one of the beds to find this ex-rat.

Moving it was a blue task.

Somehow it was good to see that Dara who has been an agricultural worker all her life was just as squeamish as me. I didn’t feel such a townie wuss.

We spent three days clearing the house. Paul ( he of the wood gas powered car from last week’s post) was enlisted to help.

Stuart tackled clearing the attic.

And by good fortune, we had a monumental rain storm on the second night. That gave the perfect opportunity for Paul and Stuart to work out where the leaks were….

…and get up on the roof to fix them.

So the house is now, hopefully, weather-proofed. We won’t see it again until after our trip which now continues with our travels next week through Romania.

Week 31 – Bulgaria – Varna

We spent most of this week on the Black Sea coast where we were staying in Varna, Bulgaria’s third biggest city.

Our friends Dave and Carol were flying in from Inverness to join us so it was time to leave Palamartsa….

…which we did with a bang.

Thankfully it wasn’t from our van. It was from Paul’s motor which is, well, have a look….

 Paul is from the UK but has been living in the village for several years. He stopped by Wild Thyme Farm and showed us his car which is fuelled by gas made from wood. He built it himself mostly from scrap and although it looks like something from ‘Back to the Future’ it is does actually work (sometimes) though the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang noises were just a bit alarming.

We were agog at his inventiveness but he assured us that these cars are much more common then we’d realised. Looking into it, it seems that there were over half a million wood gas powered vehicles in use in the 1940s. http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2010/01/wood-gas-cars.html

But going a tad more high tech than Paul, our first stop in Varna was the VW main dealership for Northern Bulgaria.

Van Service time:

After 12,000 miles driving, it was time to give Molly the full once over. We also needed two new tyres, new oil, petrol  and filters, two new rubber gaiters on the steering rods and the brake fluid needed to be changed.

We’d also been having problems with the hand brake so asked for that to be adjusted. Labour costs are a lot cheaper in Bulgaria than in the UK but there’s no real difference in price when it comes to parts.

Here she is  – our home for the last seven months – up on the ramp ready for her close up under supervision from Teodar.

A short break in Varna:

When Dave and Carol arrived, first it was beer time….

….then 0ver the next couple of days, we set about sight seeing in earnest.

We had a leisurely stroll along the sea front…..past some traditional sculpture…

.. and some not so traditional.

In the distance, we could see part of the colossal sculpture commemorating the Bulgaria-Soviet friendship…

..and we got up close to The Pantheon, commemorating those fallen in wartime.

We had a leisurely walk through the Sea Garden, an enormous park which runs along the coastline. It’s a wonderful park and a great space beside the city to relax…

…and have more beer.

We met this brave soul ploughing a solitary furrow in trying to promote craft beers in the land where fizzy Zagorka reigns. He’s got a shop called The Beers in the Black Sea town of Burgas.

And we couldn’t have planned this better – next day in Varna, the city was staging a carnival to celebrate the arrival of Spring. So we hung around for the afternoon….

…watching the different groups participating in the parade arrive and sort out their traditional costumes…

…which they were happy to show off to us..

With the vibrant colours….

…and the jangling noise of the bells as the different groups danced in competition with each other….

…it was a fantastically joyous afternoon.

And when the smartly dressed navy band arrived…

….we braced ourselves for some sombre military tunes…

….but were delighted instead with blasts of Glen Miller.

We finished the tourist trail with a trip to the Retro Museum where there were some familiar faces from Bulgaria’s Communist comrades …

The museum was a car buff”s dream. On display was the very smart car used by the Politburo in Moscow….

….and something more modest for the proletariat.

The Lada Niva (now Stuart’s favourite car)
More Ladas

Then it was time for Carol and Dave to head home so for our last day in Varna, we had another leisurely stroll round the Sea Garden and back through the town where we followed the sound of Bulgarian folk music and joined the audience…

…watching the locals, young and old, folk dancing.

Then it was a tour around the Farmer’s Market…

…before heading back to our hotel beside the symbol of Varna, the Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral.

When we were trying to work out a good place to meet up with Carol and Dave, we decided on Varna only because it was the closest destination to Romania – the next country in our trip – and the flights were (sort of) convenient for them.

By lucky chance, the place we plumped for turned out to be perfect for a short break. The Sea Garden, in particular, is a wonderful place to hang out and the town has plenty of good restaurants and a few good pubs. Our favourite for food and beer was The Black Sheep Pub and it’s clearly popular with the locals too.

We couldn’t get in one night because all tables were reserved to watch these guys in action….

Local boy Kubrat Pulev was taking on Kevin Johnson and the live screening of the match taking place in Sofia packed the restaurant. (His name might already be very familiar as winning means he now takes on Joshua, a match everyone back home seemed to have been watching the other night).

Of course, our plans have changed a bit since we picked Varna. So tomorrow we are not heading north to Romania. Instead we are returning to Palamartsa.

That house bug, it’s hard to shake.