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.

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