A stroll through Bucharest

University Bucharest

Piața Revoluției

An attractive woman with yellowish hair dressed in layers of black reminding me of the coolcats of the Paris jazz scene stood clutching onto the iron railings of the National Museum of Romanian Art, her melancholy features softened more so by the tears rolling down her face, looking defeated she stared straight ahead trying to compose herself once again. My instinct was to approach her, to ask if she was alright but then I glanced across the road to the thing that held her attention, a stage holding an orchestra, their classical notes distant but still audible above the dim of traffic beside Piața George Enescu. Why was she crying I thought, for her grandfather, a lover, or for the Romania of old or maybe just for the music itself. This was not the first time i’d saw someone cry at music in the city, the night before the same thing happened near Piața Universității only this time the woman was slightly older and the orchestra larger, the tears the same. How alien and far off sterile Japan seemed where emotions were never shown. I wanted to remain in this real world with it’s raw feelings forever, exposed, in Bucharest.

Calea Victoriei

Balcony Bucharest

The infamous balcony

I continued walking along Calea Victoriei, Bucharest’s most famous avenue as the classical notes faded away to be replaced by the low dim of traffic. I passed the red factory-like brick walls of Kretzulescu Church, the narrow structure seemed like a marooned ship in a sea of concrete, it’s steeple a funnel, its walls scarred and torn, only not from icebergs but from bullet holes reminding me just where I was, the spot where the everyday people, the workers, had stood up against the dictator as bullets rained down, this was the revolution in Bucharest, Piața Revoluției. On the other side of the street stood an ordinary looking building with a balcony where a bewilderd dictator, Ceaușescu had slipped from his life of privilege, the balcony only one storey tall but the fall everlasting. The further I walked along this avenue I felt like I was walking through a Zoetrope, the images not of animals or clowns but of Bucharest past, a decade here, a century there. As Piața Revoluției faded into the distance the afternoon was interrupted by the screeching of tyres burning rubber, the sight of two porsches drag racing along the avenue suddenly jolted me out of the eighties and revolutions, reminding me that I was in a district of the wealthy. Calea Victoriei, long the haunt of those above the law, the rich, the famous, the dubious. Once lined by the mansions of the boyars, merchants would sell Persian rugs, exotic animals, Venetian glass, Russian sable and caviar. Calea Victoriei was the first street in Bucharest to be “paved” in the 17th century, not by asphalt but by wooden logs. This elevated street and the lure of escape from the muddy sidestreets irresistable to the wealthy where they began to build their mansions. Now the elegant shops were selling designer brands and wares no different than Bond Street or Fifth Avenue, the shopkeepers seemed flamboyant, almost peculiar and eccentric in comparison to the everyday Romanian, lost in a cloud of money. I found just what I had searched all over Sibiu for, a woolen rug just like the one I had saw in the documentary Elena & Constantin. Burgundy with vibrant flowers of various colours, each unique flower representing ancestors, the outrageously camp shop assistant assured me it was handmade from the villages, once part of a dowry.

Stavropoleos Church

Detail of Stavropoleos Church

I headed south through the city’s Old Town past unabashed cafes full of ear-splitting tourists shouting at widescreen televisions showing sport and through groups of tourists too busy holding up their selfie sticks like lost extraterrestials with their antennas trying to contact other worlds, from windows crude neon flashed the word ‘G-I-R-L-S’ in red and blue, the calling cards of practically topless masseurs stuck to car windows advertised erotic massage, jaded street hookers approached lone men in the quieter streets to a background of shops with their glaring lightbulbs and ubiquitous dracula mugs, in amongst this an uptight middle class dined in open air restaurants. It saddened me to realise that the Old Town had gone down this route but in a world which seemed preoccupied with vulgarity, hedonism and pornographic sex I guess no one could blame them in their capitalist freefall, it was just simply the quickest way to get rich.

Walking further along a pedestrianised street I noticed the oriental façade of the Stavropoleos Church on a streetcorner and stepped inside its shadowy interiors of soot covered frescoes and the chants of a choir of nuns, the features on their faces lit by dim lamps and candles their mouths chanting austerly in the flickering light. How quickly I had travelled from a crude animation zone a street block away into what could have been the dark ages. I had wanted to see Stavropoleos Church with it’s hints of Istanbul for a long time but sadly due to it’s central location and reputation amongst tourists it was swarmed, a caretaker now and again hushing visitors to be quiet and pulling at the arms of those about to take photos. As beautiful as it looked I missed the empty churches of the north and the inevitable search for their caretakers with key

A gang of teenage Aurolac boys in tracksuits broke into a fight on a bridge crossing the Dâmbovița River, intoxicated by paint fumes and driven no doubt by hunger oblivious to the glares of the Bucharesters who, long suffering in silence from their antics had cast them out long ago like distant drug addicted cousins after all hope had gone. If the boys hadn’t been so manic I would have asked them if they knew of Macarena and how she was doing. I had planned to pause at the river to imagine how it used to be when once it had been sweet enough to drink but after many floods the river had been tamed into a modern concrete channel, the mishmash of architectural styles lining the river bank from highly ornated to drab cardboard box too conflicting for me to contemplate and anyway the river flowed abruptly under the marble smörgåsbord that is Piața Unirii.

The bleached buildings surrounding Piața Unirii, an expansive square, looked like a forgotten mold-covered wedding cake, about to collapse in on itself making the Bucharesters look almost ant-like, marching around its base in all directions. Paradoxically the architecture, Socialist-Realism, had me in awe, it’s 20th century optimism and scale both disturbing and fantastic at the same time. Underneath me stood the dust of monasteries, churches and the cities historical Jewish neighbourhood, obliterated in what the Romanians called Ceaușima, a portmanteau of Ceaușescu and Hiroshima. On the dictator’s orders large swathes of downtown had been reduced to rubble and cleared, the expanse reminiscent of Hiroshima ’45. Like the Japanese city this desolate place had risen once again only this time taking the form of the dictator’s grand vision, the Civic Centre, endless offices and apartments with a view built for his cronies. As I walked passed its polluted marble and dried out fountains, it’s main boulevard choked by car fumes I realised I was highly impressed, it deserved to be up there with all the other grandeur of our ancestors. You would be hard pressed to find such scale being built in the Europe of austerity today.

Bucharest Cathedral

Patriarchal Cathedral

On the otherside of the square I headed up Patriarchate Hill. This hill held a special place in the hearts of the Bucharesters. Once covered in vineyards and a place where princes were crowned at the top had stood the defensive walls of the Patriarchal Cathedral. All that remained of the wall was the red brick clocktower, the vineyards replaced by drab apartment blocks. In the centre still stood the Cathedral, like a precious ivory box topped off with silver cruxifixes, to the right of the Cathedral people moved in a cloud of black smoke coming from a small shrine where the believers were lighting candles and praying. Stepping onto the red carpet of the Cathedral the sparkling, gem encrusted altar literally blinded me for a few seconds. I was speechless, seeing this altar was one of my highlights of Romania. I must have stood with bewildered eyes and mouth open like an animal caught in headlights for a good five minutes. I realised this wasn’t somewhere to just pass through, this had to be savoured. I sat on a wooden bench near the altar for I imagine must have been three hours. Mostly the only sound you could hear was the brush strokes of an elderly woman bent over who was scrubbing what seemed like a grave stone, sometimes a lone tourist or tour groups would wander in. After a while I would wait for them to see their bambi-in-the-headlights impressions, very rarely some had no expression at all. In a corner of the cathedral was a silver coffin incased in glass, the relics of Saint Demetrios, sometimes people would kiss the glass while blessing themselves and praying. Of all my memories of Romania seeing people pray like this has remained with me the longest, their devotion unfathomable, unable to be crushed by something so fleeting as Communism.

Patriarchal Cathedral

Your bambi-in-the-headlight moment, photo does not do it justice.

I walked past the Romani flower sellers and down the cracked marble stairs of Piața Unirii subway station, past the mocca-coloured walls which were hard to see under layers of grime and diesel, past small kiosks selling newspapers printed in Romanian and Cyrillic, penknifes and old transistor radios further into the subterreanean world of dim lights, leaking ceilings and large shiny Canadian built train carriages. As the train headed north from the corner of my eye I quietly observed the faces of the Bucharesters caught in their thoughts. They sat in silence, as people do in a city of six million, but in their minds, I thought, must have spanned a lifetime concealing many different characters, how they were forced to become different people who had to adjust to war, allied bombings, Socialism, earthquakes, dictators, Communism, revolutions and now Capitalism.

Nicholas Russian Church

A big onion on some matchsticks, the St Nicholas Russian Church

Near my hotel I walked into the St Nicholas Russian Church, sadly covered in wooden scaffolding only the main dome was visable, like a massive gold onion balancing on a stack of matches. There was a service taking place, even though I knew practically nothing about Orthodox Christanity I stood quietly, watching what seemed like rural women in woolen jumpers, pretty skirts and bright headscarfs with flower motifs, the wholesome composition of their facial features mysterious and so different to anything I had ever saw before. They stood around a Priest dressed in black robes, chanting the way it always has been whether out in the open or in secret.

Before I knew it I was in the back of a black limousine heading to the airport, being addressed as Miss Grace by a smartly dressed chauffeur. As the Mercedes made it’s way along Șoseaua Kiseleff Avenue I looked out from behind the glass onto twisted Sycamore trees like gnarling fingers about to snatch the shadowy figures who lingered below them out of the rain. I felt, strangely, like a divorcee, thrown out into a savage world without a lifeline, like a distorted Lady Di that fateful night only for me there would be no Pont d’Alma or Dodi Al-Fayed, at least not this time, life would go on. The only paparazzi chasing me were thoughts of my ex-lover and our failed relationship, those newborn days when slipping into love we had spoke for hours in another universe, the far-off world miniscule and irrelevant. As the great hulk of our relationship sank beneath the waves I felt like a screaming child trapped on it’s deck, unsure whether to stay or to try and swim back to the volcanic shores of an uncaring world. In the distance of my thoughts I could hear a man speaking with a Romanian accent, the words of my white-gloved chauffeur pulling me back to the present. “Everything had worked out in the end” he said. “We had been pulled away from our villages, our fields, our past by the dictator and forced to relocate to a city where we knew no one. At first my grandmother had hated this city but after time the pain faded and in the end from the pieces she managed to create for herself a new life”.

A new life. As the plane climbed at one point the cloud cover seperated to reveal a road far below, from the resevoirs I realised it was the road I had travelled along, through the Olt Defile on my journey north to Transylvania. That very same road where Romania had encaptured me was suddenly concealed by cloud cover once again, as if the country was playfully showing me just what I had lost, laughing and whispering for me to return.

I imagine the stewardess must have thought how odd I was, that strangely ecstatic person sitting in seat 37A. Just another face in a crowd but little did they know where I had came from, how I had travelled to Romania across landscapes of broken glass, heavy hearted and nervous, travelling the first time alone in years. Little did they know that the inhabitants far below in Romania, on just another one of their flightpaths had, just by being the sweet people that they are unwittingly shown me I can do things on my own, and more importantly love doing things on my own. For this reason alone I will forever love Romania.

Romania, once you were a footnote in a glossy magazine but today you are the cover story.


Sibiu the Unexpected.

Sibiu skyline

The Jesuit Church Sibiu

Although Sibiu, like many towns, has it’s fair share of hastily constructed apartment blocks they are located on the fringes of the town and don’t seem too invasive. The medieval old town is confined within 10-metre tall ramparts and thankfully is large enough to get lost in for a good few hours. The days that I had spent in Sibiu it seemed like it was going to be impossible for me to connect with the city in any memorable way. The streets were cluttered with too much traffic, too many cafés and icecream stalls, too many plastic chairs and beer advertising, cables running across it’s cobbled squares to music speakers blaring out the latest hits of the Romanian singer Smiley. I had resigned myself to the fact that Sibiu was beautiful but that is all it would ever be. That was until I discovered the town just after dawn.

Sibiu at dawn

Bridge of Lies

Solitary figure under the Bridge of Lies

It was my last full day in Transylvania and I didn’t really have any idea of how to spend my time. I toyed with the idea of chartering a taxi to drive me across the Transfăgărășan mountain pass but in the end decided just to get lost in the backstreets of Sibiu. I woke up before dawn and by 6.30am was having breakfast in the hotel. It had been interesting staying there watching various groups pass through on their tours through Romania. Yesterday there had been a group from the Far East who had hardly acknowledged each other, the day before polite elderly Germans who sat together quietly and today what seemed like army generals in their uniforms joking boisterously.

By 7.15 I was walking along Strada Nicolae Bălcescu, the pedestrian street leading from my hotel to the main square on the most glorious of summer mornings, the candy coloured buildings topped off with a sky the bluest of blue . The main square Piaţa Mare was almost empty, it’s cafés thankfully closed and the inevitable plastic chairs stacked neatly away. A frail old woman in threadbare clothes sat on one of the benches smiling while looking at the pigeons who were crowded around a small boy who was throwing bread crumbs for them, the bread broken off from a loaf by an older woman possibly his mother, nearby in the doorway of the Baroque Bruckenthal Museum two teenagers were embraced and kissing awkwardly, near the entrance of the custard and powder blue Jesuit Church a small group of people had gathered clutching strands of wheat, probably something to do with the Christian holy day of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Turnul Sfatuliu

Turnul Sfatului

I wandered through the arches below the whitewashed tower of Turnul Sfatului, where the day before I had climbed it’s stairs to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata which the caretaker had been playing through the tower’s sound system, how sublime it had seemed looking out of the tower above a sea of red tiles. In Piaţa Mica, Sibiu’s lesser square, I sat on a grey wall absorbing the architecture and looking at the colours and details of the roofs with their attic windows designed to look like eyes by the God-fearing Saxons. Almost every building had “eyes” to remind the town’s inhabitants that God was always watching their every move, of his ever-presence, in some ways similar to the Muezzin’s Call to Prayer. Much later these “eyes” had been used by snipers during the winter of ’89 when shoppers had been gunned down during their secret holiday, Christmas. Now and again lone shadows would pass me by on their way to work but most of the time I was alone. The bells of the Jesuit Catholic church began to chime to signal we were approaching 8am, followed by the bells of the Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral, their conflicting notes dancing above my head, almost but not quite deafening out some chirping birds who were scavenging for scraps not far from where I was sitting. I had remembered that first Sunday morning walking through the streets how Sibiu seemed to greet me with church bells and now it seemed almost as if the city was saying goodbye. I realised that very moment that this was my unexpected highlight of Romania, sitting in one of Europe’s most beautiful squares having it all to myself. If it wasn’t for the parked cars in a corner of the square then I could almost have been peering into Sibiu of a hundred years ago. By now a quarter of an hour had passed and the bells were still chiming. I decided to view the square from another angle and sat on the steps of the town’s oldest building, the 14th century Casa Arts before slowly sighing while standing on the iron Bridge of Lies, called so because it’s said the bridge would collapse if a lie was to be told while standing on it. Such a romantic spot in Sibiu since the 19th century others had interpreted the name as from the thousands of times lovers had stood on it whispering sugar-coated deceit to one another.

Piata Huet

Tunnel to Piaţa Huet

I passed the tangerine and red façade of the Baroque Casa Luxembourg, one of the town’s most famous inns before turning right following a narrow tunnel into Piaţa Huet, again a charming square surrounded by pretty townhouses with faded wooden shutters and window gardens reminiscent of Provence. In the centre of the oval square stood the Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral concealing it’s paintings depicting evil, only this time not in the form of the devil but what the Saxons had viewed as Satanic, the Ottomans.

Casa Luxembourg

Piata Mica

Casa Arts

Evangelical Church Sibiu

Piata Mica Sibiu

Stairs towards the Lower Town

I followed stone steps leading down the redbrick ramparts of the Upper Town into the forgotten Lower Town, often described as dangerous and best avoided but to me the most exquisite part of all Sibiu. Long inhabited by the poor at the foot of the town’s outer defensive walls it seemed a world away from the grand squares and pretentious laughter of the fashionable cafés of the Piaţa Mare. I noticed over previous days that there were almost no tourists in the Lower Town, the authenticity drawing me back time and time again. It reminded me of photos I had seen of the Upper Town from twenty years ago. Faded buildings, no advertising or tourist buses and minimal street furniture. The Upper Town had been spruced up for it’s year as European Capital of Culture and at times felt airbrushed. Down here in this dubious world I had adored Piaţa Coroana, a narrow triangular square hemmed in between dilapidated buildings. Some afternoons I had sat at it’s fountain mesmerized by a particular red building from the 14th century which I felt would collapse any day now. Down here even though the shops seemed empty there was a sense of community. Women stood in doorways chatting to each other, children playing in the streets like they used to do in western Europe before the onslaught of technology. I could already see the Lower Town of the future, gentrification, and it’s demise. The signs were already there, designer shops and hotels would take over, prices would rise, the poor would be forced into cheaper satellite towns. I wondered if it’s inhabitants knew what lay ahead.

Lower Town Sibiu The Lower Town

Church of the Ursulines

Church of the Ursulines

On my last day in Sibiu I only had one more place to revisit. It’s strange when travelling how certain places can lure you back time and time again. In Milan it had been to the cloister of the Santa Maria della Grazie. I used to sit there most afternoons and sometimes revist it’s inner chapel to view Da Vinci’s Last Supper. This time in Sibiu it’s magnet had been it’s oldest place of worship, the Church of the Ursulines, once a Dominican monastery. Not a religious person myself, at first it was just a place to escape the afternoon heat where I would sit on a pulpit in the shadow of an alcove but after time watching people coming to pray had been in some way touching.


Church of the Ursulines

I will never forget Sibiu and it’s inhabitants, the woman dressed in jeans from the eighties who, cigarette hanging from her lower lip, had explained how to buy a bus ticket, and the smiling girl in the grocery store on Calea Dumbrăvii who tried to advise me on a suitable vegetarian restaurant, the patient people on the street who tried to understand what I was asking, the man who offered me a lift in his car when I was stranded on the outskirts of town, the elegant woman in sunglasses who had walked with me along the street to show me the postoffice and all of the other people who had gone out of their way to make a visitor feel welcome. Don’t ever change Sibiu, stay just the way you are.

Subscribe via email to my blog. Next up: A stroll through Bucharest.

Fractured fairytales from Sighișoara.


Country traffic with the Fortified Church of Biertan in the background

Elena, a tall, sturdy woman appeared at my hotel promptly at 8am. Due to time restrictions I didn’t have the chance to work out how to travel through the north and hiring a guide with car seemed like the best solution. I didn’t know anything about her and couldn’t find any reviews online but she seemed friendly enough from her photo.

By the time we had properly introduced ourselves the car was crossing a small bridge at the floor of a valley before turning a bend and following the road uphill through the quiet town of Sura Mare, it’s collection of pastel-coloured houses lining empty roads on the northern fringes of Sibiu. I was taken aback by how quickly we had travelled from central Sibiu to this beautiful landscape of gentle rolling hills with their solitary houses and small apple and cherry orchards, the sky a deep cobalt blue without a cloud in sight. I rolled down the car window and inhaled the fresh, country air. “This is what summertime is all about” I sighed to myself dreamily.

“The people from Bucharest are horrible” Elena hissed, pressing on the accelerator and bringing me back to Earth with a bump. “I don’t even need to talk to them to figure out they are Bucharesters, just one look is enough!” In a country with a recent turbulent history our conversation had inevitably moved onto the subject of politics. I had mentioned that some people in Bucharest were already disillusioned with the new president who was just over six months in office. “The problem is that people don’t have patience, they want everything now. He was good for Sibiu when he was Mayor here, they just need to give him more time.” Elena said clearly annoyed. I reminded her that inhabitants of major cities the world over and not just in Bucharest were mostly seen as being more impatient and cynical by people living in provincial towns and she shouldn’t take it to heart. The people I had met in Bucharest were lovely I had assured her.

“Look over there” she said pointing to a row of unappealing prefab two-storey houses further up the hill. “You see all the roofs of those houses are black, that is the soot from factories that used to be here during the Communist era.” These drab houses had been built for the factory workers but now the factories were gone and nature once again had reclaimed the land, now and again heaps of bricks were visable jutting out of the long grass. The factory workers that had remained now had fresh air and beautiful scenery, something they must have always dreamed about, but now their lives were blighted by soaring unemployment and the fallout that comes with that. Alcoholism. Depression. Broken families. The socialist dream with it’s equal citizens marching towards the idealistic security that lay in the iron works and towering chimney stacks had been hastily brushed under the carpet of a post ’89 euphoria to be replaced by pretty little flowers in town squares and an influx of German products that few could afford. The dream that so many had hoped and fought for, the dream that they deserved, was still frustratingly out of reach.


Sad sparrow at Biertan Fortified Church.

We turned off the main road and headed along a country road towards Biertan with it’s late 15th century fortified church. Biertan was a sleepy village much like the others nestled away between hills but on closer inspection I noticed that newfangled concrete houses lacking in personality were being built and many others were being renovated.  There was an air of optimism. UNESCO had declared their church a world heritage site and I guess the villagers were focusing on an income through tourism. We walked up the path and through the gate of the defence walls, the silence interrupted by the sound of saws and hammers coming from two workmen with weatherbeaten faces and broad smiles. The wooden watchtowers and protective wall surrounding the church were being restored. I noticed a large crack above the main door of the church, damage from the 1977 Vrancea earthquake and wondered if the structure was stable. Stepping inside, the faded moods of the 15th century Gothic triptych contrasted weakly againt the stark ivory coloured interior. It was in a way anti-climatic. Nothing could compare to the treasures of Sibiel Church, it’s angels floating in a kaleidscope of blue still vivid in my mind. We made our way back towards the car. I remarked to Elena how surprising that we were the only visitors there but obviously speaking too soon the cliché that is a busload of Japanese tourists invaded the village. We left Biertan just in time.

Streets of Biertan

Renovations in Biertan



We made our way to what I imagined would be the high point of my trip, the medieval town of Sighișoara, billed as the last remaining inhabited citadel of Europe. Walking up the ramparts and under the Clock Tower it was hard to believe that after all these years I had finally arrived into the imaginary lands of my childhood. As a small child I too had slipped into the world between the pages of my books as the winter nights raged outside. When I was learning to read these lands were inhabited by fantastical strange characters like the emperor with his new clothes, Raspunzel and my favorite of all the cackling Baba Yaga. I knew exactly the towns and forests in which they had lived and later in life had wondered if such towns could really exist visually. Time and time again I had been dissappointed. Danish towns turned out to be too grey and windswept, German towns injected with too much modernity and Dutch towns too prim. It wasn’t until reaching Sighișoara that I laughed to myself and realised a perfect fairytale town did exist after all with it’s drinking fountains, horses, tinted houses with higgledy-piggledy windows enclosed in outrageously uneven walls. Elena pointed to the white Roman Catholic Cathedral and said it was the church the Magyar community used. She invited me to go inside and look around although refused to go inside herself. She had made it clear earlier in the day that she loathed Hungarians, she said they were wanting to take Transylvania away from Romania. I was walking across the pages of a fairytale but this bedtime story had been fractured by Elena and her political tensions of the modern world. It distorted my perception making me realise this was not a fairytale land in peace. Long fought over by invading armies, the memories and bad feelings still remained in Elena, in the people, simmering away quietly under the surface. Walking along Strada Bastionului I could see the potential, how charming the citadel could be in another season, snow-covered, when the tourists had moved on. Sadly the timing was all wrong, by now the harsh rays of an uncomprimising sun were being reflected off the cobbled streets, there were too many tourists buying too many garish Dracula souvenirs. Two Romani children dressed in rags, possibly seeing a glint of empathy in my eyes, followed me down a lane tugging at my clothes begging for money while a hawk-eyed woman hiding in a doorway observed their every move.

Sighisoara Clock Tower

Sighișoara Clock Tower



We arrived back in Sibiu late afternoon where Elena parked the car in the Lower Town. “You see that building over there?” she said pointing to an empty building, it’s red paint flaking in the sunlight. “That used to be a bakery, I would go there as a child to buy cakes, now look at the state of it, abandoned!” She said, tones of hopelessness in her voice. “We are still waiting for better times, it’s been 26 years since the end of Communism and with progress we have little to show.” I told her that things will change. I told her my own country had gone through hard times. As a child I had experienced shortages, strikes and constant electricity blackouts, our home often lit by candlelight. I assured her that Romania will one day experience it’s economic boom and that it has everything to be a successful tourist destination. “Look at the bakery you used to go to” I said  “Later that will be a Dunkin’ Donuts and you see that abandoned building over there, that will be a boutique hotel. All of these beautiful buildings are going to be snapped up during the boom. You will get your Starbucks and when you have lost your community to global chains one day you will sit down and try to decide if it was all really worth it.”

The Romania of my dreams.


My first sunrise in Transylvania

Somewhere back in time I remember seeing a film of the steeples of Sibiu at dawn, an eerie mist danced in the valleys and across the hills to a sky cloaked in a delicate shade of apricot. When checking into the Ramada I had asked them for a room on a higher floor facing the walled ramparts of the old town. It was one of my wishes to see those hills dance for myself. Like searching for Mount Fuji through cloud cover I had hoped for the best but had asked for nothing. It was still night when I had stumbled out of bed to check the time on my phone. Glancing out of the window to a blackened starless night, the ghostly streets flickered orange from the street lamps. At first it seemed there was nothing to see but to the east I noticed a tiny speckle of pink trying to climb over the jagged silhouette of a far off mountain range. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep after that. I must have sat there at the window for a couple of hours drinking tea and listening to Miles Davis. After a while when the birds started to sing the street lights were switched off and the first inhabitants began to appear, scurrying their way to work. By the time the street cleaners turned a corner sweeping the litter away I was in awe of the sky, a blaze of pink was reflected in my eyes and in the foreground the medieval monuments of Sibiu bathed exquisitely in their spotlights from the night before. I grabbed my camera to try and capture it but in a way it didn’t matter, such technology would never be capable of capturing the whole world in a single frame.

So began the day that I would discover the Romania of my dreams. To me that land had always been about the rural villages with their people connected closer to the earth than we city dwellers would ever understand. Toiling away almost in another century to the simplicity of the day showing the world just what we had lost. I had hoped to stay in Maramures, a remote region to the north where people still used sickles in the fields and festivities were still regarded as a time to get dressed up. It was known for it’s wooden villages almost medieval in character. Due to time restrictions I had to opt for rural Transylvania which was easier to get to and luckily seemed just as appealing.


Sitting under a tree on the approach to Fantanele, the church is on the hillside to the right.



I travelled towards the lower slopes of the Cindrel Mountains stopping on the outskirts of a village called Fantanele to lie in the grass and look at the wild flowers. The village was located in a gentle valley overlooked by it’s ecru coloured church located further up a steep hillside. Walking through it’s unmarked streets it was everything I had hoped for, people riding on carts pulled by horses, charming colourful houses at times anarchic in appearance and built mostly in the Romanian style, the rocky narrow lanes going off in all directions. A little while later the stillness was interrupted by an elderly man driving through the village in his old Dacia, it’s suspension creaking on the uneven road. He was wearing a straw hat and lifted his hand to acknowledge me as he passed by. I followed narrow steps which seemed to cling anxiously to the hillside in the hope that they might lead me to the church. Halfway I passed a cracked stone shrine painted white on the outside and decorated with a vine of blue leaves making their way snakelike around the structure.  Inside it’s beautifully faded ochre frescoes of Saints were crumbling away, reduced to a powder to be carried through the village everytime a breeze meandered up the valley.

Traffic Fantanele

When someone says Romania to you this could be the image you have in your mind. Photo taken in Fantanele.

While travelling through Rasinari I noticed a village higher up the hill and knew it must be Prislop. While walking towards it a local advised me not to go there as it was a “gypsy” settlement where I would most certainly encounter trouble. I was shocked by this information, the Romani I thought were a friendly, alluring folk. I knew them as the people who had wandered out of India a thousand years ago to escape persecution from the caste system. I had met a Romani family while walking one afternoon in Budapest, as the man walked through Szabadsag Square he had played a violin to which a small girl had danced around him. Now I was in a strange land and decided to heed the advice of the woman and headed downhill instead.

Sibiel interiors

At Sibiel Church

It was in Sibiel that I feel in love with Romania. Sibiel was charming, the only sounds I could hear were insects and the noise of the small stream flowing over rocks towards the Cibin River. It wasn’t Sibiel in particular that had me in awe but had something to do with the interior of it’s church. I can best describe entering the church as the moment your face is illuminated when opening a treasure trove of jewels. The ceiling had been painted blue to represent the night and in that night were twinkling stars and to me the most beautiful angels on Earth. Sunlight coming through a window played off against the gold leaf and frescoes, the intensity of the love conveyed by the artists caught me off guard. The floorboards creaked under a mosaic of worn carpets as I walked towards it’s simple altar decorated with paintings, local textiles and pink flowers. It seemed both very old and dusty but much loved at the same time. I had to walk towards a window and pretend to look out at the graveyard so that the caretaker who had opened the church for me wouldn’t see my emotions. Walking into Sibiel Church I knew instantly that one day I would return to Romania. I have looked at the photos I took inside Sibiel Church a number of times to try and find that one symbolic thing that would have had a hold over me but still it remains a mystery. I could never imagine describing a place in Europe as exotic but that church was.

Sibiel Church

Inside the mystery that is Sibiel Church

Later on in the day I followed a steep winding path towards a Romanesque church on top of the hill of Michelsberg overlooking the village of Cisnadioara. I climbed up and sat on a broken section of the 13th century defensive wall where I snacked on local pastries made with herbs and goats cheese. It was already summer but in the distance loomed the peaks of the Fagaras Mountains, now and again the clouds would reveal their snowcapped summits. The air and silence was completely rejuvenating, only now and again pleasantly disturbed by the sound of distant cowbells. This church in Cisnadioara was reasonably old, 12th century, and the only remaining Romanesque church left in Transylvania. It had somehow escaped the Gothic modernisations which had swept the region. The ground was littered with football sized, moss covered boulders, each one carried there from the river bed centuries before by young men eager to show their strength and to prove that they were ready for marriage. These stones were to be used as weapons against the Tartars and later the Ottomans when the church was attacked. I couldn’t help but smile when I realised there was no one there, the lack of tourists and even staff one of the greatest charms of Romania.

Saxon boys

The Saxon farm boys

Leaving Cisnadioara I met some Saxon farm boys who led me across a field to try sour cherries that were growing on a tree. We talked about my life in the city and they asked if they could visit me. They told me that sometimes they go to Germany to visit relatives but that life in Romania was good too. Later they showed me a barn that they were restoring, I was amazed when I realised they had no electric saws and that everything was being done by hand.


Fortified Church of Cristian and the Lard Tower to the right

I eventually made it to the Fortified Church of Cristian, a small village not that far from the outskirts of Sibiu and wandered towards a grassy square facing a high wall with a small solitary window. On this area of grass was where the sinners, outcasts and sick were kept and were forbidden from entering the church. I imagined muddy tents inhabited by ragged starving people. The priest would open the small window where he would give sermons, I read that scraps of food were also thrown to them from that window. I strolled through the church and headed to the Lard Tower where food for the villagers was stored. In the summer due to the heat the Lard Tower was only opened once a week on Sundays so that the villagers could get supplies. Now it was just a museum and unmanned shop, the only villager now looking for supplies was a skinny black cat sitting by the doorway licking it’s lips. Disaster struck Cristian in the mid 17th Century when the Ottomans passed through the village on their way to Alba Iulia from Sibiu. A local noble persuaded the troops not to attack the village and they agreed. As they were passing through one villager under the influence of too much wine attacked them. The Ottomans set the church and village on fire, it was said that most villagers suffocated from the smoke. Disaster struck again during an outbreak of plague when the population had been decimated. The village was later repopulated at the start of the 18th Century by Landler Protestants banished from Catholic Vienna whose decendants remain to this day.

Discovering rural Romania has been enthralling. What strikes me most is the friendliness of it’s inhabitants, they seem to really want to help a traveller when lost, or maybe it’s because i’m a woman travelling alone.  The landscapes are rustic like in Central Europe only more dramatic and incredibly beautiful. Centuries old artworks are exposed to the elements and fading away which seem to intensify their value while adding a sense of romantic melancholy. When trying to look at a church you have to look for a caretaker who most of the time will appear with a huge key probably made by a blacksmith in another century.

It saddens me to think that this world will fade as the country becomes bombarded with European Union regulations but at the same time I wish progress for the villagers. Hopefully they will find a middle ground and move along with the rest of us while holding onto the things that matter.

To the Carpathians and beyond.

Carpathian Sunrise

My first sunset in Transylvania

It was just after dawn on a gloomy Sunday morning, the streets of Bucharest were deserted and I was alone in the back of a speeding taxi, the driver a madman. I had done the proper thing and asked the hotel to call me a taxi from a reputable company. Nothing could go wrong I had assured myself. The driver turned up at the hotel less than two minutes later, unshaven, brash and wearing a stained white vest and dirty tracksuit bottoms, he looked like he had literally just rolled out of bed. I glanced nervously at the cab number as I got into the back.

– “Taxi 64x, remember 64x!” I whispered to myself. I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach. I had already made up my mind I was either going to throw money at him while fleeing the taxi at the first red stoplight or even worse i’d need his cab number when filing a complaint. I wanted to go west towards the bus station but before I knew what was happening we were rambling down vacant alleyways and around tidy squares before heading north towards Piata Romana.

– “Is it your first time ee the city?” he asked while glancing expectantly in his rear view mirror. It was early, I was in an unfamiliar country and I had heard the same question from taxi drivers the world over. I’d learned my lesson never to admit you were new to a place. Arriving in New York alone and wide-eyed aged 19, instead of getting out the cab on the Upper East Side I had ended up in a grafitti-scarred, bombed out neighbourhood somewhere in Harlem where some poor soul was eating out of a trashcan. Still, now in Bucharest it was a Sunday, I was half asleep and didn’t have enough brain cells even to think about being tactful.

– “Yes, it’s my first time in Bucharest” I answered “and by the way, can you drive along Regina Elisabeta Boulevard instead? That is the quickest way to Autogara Militari! ” I smirked. He threw his head back and laughed uncontrollably before turning round and looking me straight in the eye.

– “What? You leeve ee Bucuresti? You are knowing driving ee Bucuresti?” He demanded. I told him I didn’t want to play any games and that we had to cross the city in three minutes as my bus was leaving. He told me I would never make it and that he would drive me anywhere for a good price and anyway, since I was his first customer of the day I must bring him good luck. I told him to step on the gas. I think he liked that as before I knew it we were racing along an endless boulevard, Avenue Foch maybe, but all wrong, on both sides lego shoebox-like high-rise apartments, weather-beaten and neglected as if someone had carelessly spilled grey paint all over them.  Now and again we’d overtake the odd, solemn car and jump red traffic lights. At the bus station I complimented him on his driving skills before running into the autogara. As I ran along the docking station my heart sank, it was empty, I was too late.

– “My friend! Run! Your bus ee outside!” I turned around to see the taxi driver running after me. He had managed to flag down my bus which was now outside the bus station ready to turn onto a main road. The taxi driver grabbed my suitcase and we made a mad dash for the bus. Inside I tried to give the bus driver money for the journey but he just signalled me to go sit down. Romania, I realised, was strange, but in a good way.

The bus travelled through the flat plains of Wallachia. The low horizon reminded me alot of home only now trees seemed a darker shade. Not an intense, bright green like in Holland. Agricultural land borders didn’t seem as regimented. I marvelled when I noticed people working in a field using a horse and cart. I thought such sights would only have been saved for somewhere rural, not on the capital’s citylimits! It was pouring outside, raindrops drizzled across the window giving the landscape a blotted softer feel. If the driver hadn’t been blaring Romanian pop music through the speakers i’m sure I could have slept, the swaying of the bus made me feel like a baby in a cradle. After a few hours we stopped in a cheerless, modern town. Dark silhouettes huddled in shelters out of the rain, the cloud of obligatory cigarette smoke working it’s way over their heads. Two street dogs would now and again run aggressively through the bus station barking at no one in particular, the type of dogs who would scatter the moment you barked back at them. I tried to decypher the advertising billboards and with my smattering of European languages realised it was not so difficult. One offered free bus travel for the handicapped but mostly they were special offers to places like Germany, France and England. It seemed there was an exodus by bus going on although I had the feeling these weren’t travel agencies for holidaymakers but for people looking to start a new life elsewhere.

Later the bus started to climb into the valleys of the southern Carpathians following the Olt Defile, it’s dangerous road hemmed in between steep cliffs and the cinnamon coloured Olt River. I realised I had been right to travel by bus. The views were better travelling through this gorge everyone had told me, for centuries an important trade route and once the eastern frontier of Roman Dacia. By train the views were supposed to have been uninspiring. The reason I had originally avoided going by train was because I was told that Bucharest’s main train station Gara de Nord was full of thieves and drug addicts although found out later this was not true.

In the mountains suddenly Romania had become a fascinating, otherworldly place. Every bend in the river would reveal soaring, almost gothic, peaks hugged by equally imposing black clouds. The further we climbed the more the weather improved. As the bus raced through likable villages I noticed an old woman wearing a pretty headscarf stooped over and lovingly tending a grave. Further along stocky, rural people were standing beside rickety wooden stalls selling tempting watermelons and goats cheese. In one village a child ran towards and pointed excitedly at a geranium that had fallen from a plant pot. Ancient, defensive stone churches and monasteries would appear balancing precariously on the river bank. Some passengers on the bus would bless themselves, crossing themselves a number of times whenever we passed a holy place. Later the exhausted bus stopped by the roadside and a frail old woman dressed in a black headscarf and simple clothes was helped down the stairs and along a path towards a monastery. I had the feeling getting there had been a major undertaking for her and sadly this journey was for her in some way final.

Once we crossed the mountain range and into Sibiu County the landscape seemed like a blanket that had just been shaken ever so slightly creating green rolling hills fading off into the distance. The villages and towns were completely different now. Gone were the narrow pointed triangular roofs and wellkept gardens. These houses were large, imposing and made of stone topped off with hipped gable roofs. Instead of driveways these houses had broad wooden doors leading to inner courtyards, the type of doors you would imagine fit for a horse and carriage. The bus had arrived in an area which had been inhabited by the Saxons, a people from northern Europe who spoke German in a crude Lëtzebuergesch dialect. We were now in the historical region of Transylvania.

Piata Mare

Walking across Sibiu’s main square for the first time.

The bus pulled into my destination, once capital of the Principality of Transylvania, Sibiu. I felt excited, I had wanted to visit this elegant town for over a decade although the moment had never been right. It was still midmorning and I began to wander the streets carrying my suitcase towards my hotel. For my arrival Sibiu seemed to greet me with crisp air, the ringing of church bells and endless blue skies. I walked up a meandering cobbled street and passed the 15th century Church of the Ursulines where it’s smartly dressed congregation was slowly seeping back into the street. Sibiu felt different, almost faraway and noble but still the type of town where people knew each other. After I got to my hotel room and unpacked I lay on the bed staring up at the ceiling thinking of the journey across the Carpathians, how encaptivating it all had seemed. I realised that this country, Romania, could in some way be taking possession of my heart just as it had done with many other travellers who thought they were just simply passing through.

Bucharest break up.

Coltea Hospital

I couldn’t breathe! It was like being in the northern Indian enviromental disaster that is Faridabad all over again only this time there was no barcode of factory chimneys scarring the horizon, this disaster was nothing more than a queue of people waiting for a bus! The woman peering out of a tiny ticket counter had promised me the bus would arrive shortly before handing me my ticket. That was over an hour ago. At first I had stood alone but after a while a cigarette puffing crowd had formed at the bus stop, lighting up cigarette after cigarette while hissing at their watches and tapping their feet impatiently. I couldn’t handle it anymore, my poor lungs, my sanity, was this what Romania was going to be like, had I once again made a terrible terrible mistake? I had decided instead I was going to dive into the shark infested world of the Bucharest taxi driver.

I ordered a taxi from an automated machine and before I knew it I was being whisked towards downtown; seat belt not included. My body froze as the growl of a plane engine intensified until I thought my eardrums would burst. Looking out of the taxi window I realised a military jet had made a low swoop metres above the heads of a crowd lining the road before climbing vertically like an angry little bee piercing the blue sky. I remembered how we had circled above Bucharest for half an hour, the captain had informed us matter-of-factly that Romania’s main international airport was now closed to commercial airliners and we could do nothing but make a loop above the flat patchwork plains of Wallachia. There was an airshow on and I guess the military had the priority platinum card.

As the taxi drove down the tree-lined boulevards I stared out at the grey apartment buildings and massive billboards for products I had never heard of. Now this really was a country with a past evident on every street corner. Some sleek new office blocks and 4WD’s dotted the cityscape but it was mostly utilitarian mid to late 20th Century or crumbling Haussmannism.

Piata Victoriei


The taxi turned onto Victory Square and I felt a rush of excitement. This was the world of Macarena and Communism. I had wanted to see this square since watching the disturbing documentary “Children Underground” which followed the life of Macarena, a child living on the street who had been addicted to the macarena, a silly global pop dance. Her childhood was gone, her gaunt face now a metallic silver from Aurolac, her new addiction, a kind of chemical paint. I had somehow got the idea that I should scour the Bucharest subway system and find her just to make sure she was allright but this was a city of six million and knew the chances of ever finding her were slim.

Bucharest Metro

Searching for Macarena at Aviatorilor

The taxi made it’s way along grubby Magheru Boulevard and it’s stark apartment buildings with balconies facing onto other grey balconies. I noticed the red brick Italian Church dwarfed by Stalinist architecture. I suddenly felt anxious. Was I mad? Why was I here? Why Romania? Why not Spain with all the other Europeans? I kept seeing the reflection of a golden bracelet in my mind, on the arm of an elderly woman as she was tackled by a group of soldiers. She had pleaded with them and asked if they would treat their own mother that way. She wasn’t any sweet old lady though. She was Elena Ceausescu experiencing her last moments alive. The wife of the former dictator she had ruled this country with an iron grip for decades. The Ceausescus were at first loved by the people for speaking up against Moscow but in the end their policies had wrecked the economy and the optimism of the people. Families, many destitute, had been “advised” to have at least five children. Villages and historical neighbourhoods had been razed to be replaced by damp, leaking apartment blocks in a sea of cracked sidewalks and rusty, sharp playgrounds for children. Packs of dogs would roam ill lit streets at night. The factories would belch out chemicals onto towns, the clouds of acid rain trapped in valleys with nowhere to go. Self-sustainment was a dirty word, people should work and consume low quality products. This was Ceausescu’s dream.  After being impressed with the projects underway in Pyongyang he wanted his own North Korea. The secret police, the Securitate, maintained fear across the country. Abortions were illegal. Families couldn’t cope and the horror orphanages that we all saw in the early nineties began to appear. The children living on the streets and underground were all fallout from Ceausescu megalomania which continue to this day. It was around the late eighties that I had became aware of this strange land after a friend had read me a magazine article about a country where they only had one television channel. Broadcast for two hours a day, the dictator would talk, the last hours entertainment in the form of total Communist propaganda. I remember shivering and thinking how frightning it must be to live there before we moved onto the horoscope section.

Buildings in Bucharest

Borsec? Albacher…?

It was the start of summer 2015 and I realised I was alone. Only a few months ago I had wandered excited around Tokyo with my boyfriend and now it was all over. After seven years I guess our relationship had not been strong enough. I had needed to get away from everything, to top the sadness my sister-in-law had died suddenly. I hadn’t travelled alone in years and it would take me time to find my feet again. I had wanted to visit Romania with it’s traditional arts and timeless villages for years. This was the main attraction, the villages, to leave Starbucks and Whatsapp, to leave the memories of neon and Shinjuku. I wanted to sneak into a rural Orthodox wooden church in a random village wearing a bright, floral headscarf the hear foreign words and smell incense and witness devotion. To walk in hills and jump over streams in search of wild flowers and bears, the brooding mountains and simpleness, it didn’t matter if no one spoke English.

Piata Romana

Could that be Macarena now…?

As the taxi passed the memorial crucifixes outside the National Theatre I realised the finiteness of life, of everything. Endings begin even if you didn’t want them to. I realised Bucharest was good for me. It was the place I was meant to be, the severe buildings and drab commercialism reflecting my moods. Sometimes I would stumble upon optimism in the form of an old church or ornate building. I could never have been in Spain at that moment with it’s happy, drunk holidaymakers urinating in the streets. No, I had made a good decision, Bucharest was right for me.

Piata Unirii

Perseverance seemed to preoccupy my thoughts. It was around the National Theatre and University Square that the first protestors had been killed. At first a small group of people started shouting “Timisoara! Timisoara!” towards a bewildered dictator who was making a speech from a balcony. The voice of the people grew stronger. Timisoara had been the town where protests had started. Ceausescu looked puzzled, how could they be so disrespectful he must have thought. I was the one who stood up to Moscow for them! Well, it was all over. It was the moment in the Wizard of Oz when the wizard was exposed as nothing more than a ordinary little man hiding behind a curtain. The Ceausescu’s would flee by helicopter as the ministeries were ransacked only to be executed on Christmas Day. The citizens of Romania fought for their lives through their bloody revolution asking for nothing more than basic human rights. A group of noble friends even lined up one after the other and dared the soldiers to shoot them to show that even though their bullets would kill them individually the people could never be crushed.

I was in Romania feeling heartbroken but somehow this perplexing land that was once a footnote in a glossy magazine was strangely comforting me. I was struggling through my humdrum life but so were millions around me wanting nothing more than happiness. There was no other choice but to go on.