Well, now. How to best describe my weekend in the mountains...
Now we are climbing higher and higher, the roads are getting narrower and narrower. In order to maintain our progress and to arrive at our destination before we meet the group coming back from the weekend our chauffeur, an amiable type named Radu, had his foot pushed almost through the floor of his trusty Dacia. Beside me, the comatose beanpole was gently toppling towards or away from me depending on what direction the road took and the unnerving thought crossed my mind that
not one of my nearest and dearest had the faintest idea where I was. Should anything happen and be reported on the British news, they would never associate the incident with me, believing me to be tucked up safe in my apartment in Bucharest. I began to regard each vehicle as it hurtled towards us as the instigator of my imminent demise...
Suddenly, we traversed the highway and lurched off down a rutted single track mountain road. I began to hope we might now be approaching our destination. I noted, with some detachment, that most of the concrete bollards lining the side of the road that wended its way above a seemingly bottomless precipice were either missing completely or badly scarred and damaged. A posthumous testament to the previous occupants of a little Dacia, I asked myself. The upside was that, because of the even worse state of this road, our speed had to decline accordingly. Now we were only doing about 60 kph and I was at liberty to look more lingeringly on the surrounding countryside.
Most of the snow below the tree-line had gone, leaving pools of muddy water on both road and adjoining pastures. Above, magnificent peaks were beginning to turn a rosy pink as the sun continued to set, lending a majesty to an otherwise uninhabited and desolate landscape.
Slowly we descended from the mountains and on to a smaller, more verdant plain. I was told that I was now officially in Transylvania. I started to scan the peaks around me for signs of Count Dracul's Castle but could see nothing. A rusted sign hanging off a tree informed me that we still had 20 km to go before we reached a town 'about' 17 km from where we were going. I could just about last that long... I only hoped my intestines and inner organs could. How the 6' 2" beanpole to my right had managed to sleep so soundly through this assault I could only imagine...
Strangely, this plain, despite being ringed by mountains, was very dry. It was politely asked if I could close the window. The road was not well surfaced and a dust cloud was beginning to billow around our little vehicle.
Suddenly, we rounded a bend and met our convoy of vehicles stationary at a railway crossing. No immaculate red and white barriers or flashing lights and bells here. Just a wizened old man in a peaked cap, with a proprietorial hand on what looked like an immature aspen trunk, counterbalanced by a lump of concrete and operated by a length of twine. Well? It worked...
How long the rest of our party had been waiting for the train to approach could only be judged by the level of 'Palinka' in the bottle held in the hand of one of the other drivers. Palinka is a rather strong, local, plum brandy; clear in colour it delivers the kick of an angry mule to the stomach as I rapidly discovered. Uncurling myself from the back of the Dacia, accompanied by much creaking and snicking of joints, I was promptly offered the bottle and took a swig. Fortunately, I didn't disgrace myself. My eyes were forbidden to water, my mouth was banned from pursing and spraying its contents back in the face of those nearest to me. I swallowed and waited for the inevitable explosion in my stomach. It was not long in coming.
Fortunately, neither was the train... Instead of my face slowly going puce and my eyes widening in pain being witnessed by 16 other adults, they had all leapt back into their respective vehicles and were gunning their engines waiting for the barrier to ascend. I had just time to pen a quick note to hang round my neck reading 'No naked lights' and we were off again on the final stage of our trek.
My stomach continued to give off little thermal eruptions each time we hit a pothole or another obstacle in the road, but slowly I began to feel a lot calmer and dying didn't seem so bad after all.
A little village hove into view. Immaculately clean, but desperately isolated, it was obviously a farming community, but how a living was eked from the land around us I do not know. A stop was made at a little supermarket bearing a dazzling array of fresh cut cold meats and cheeses, presumably produced locally. I thought I should have something to soak up the Palinka which was now burning a hole in my stomach and
purchased a couple of slices of the most beautiful ham I have tasted in aeons. It went down, almost without touching the sides. The burning sensation started to fade. Something also made me buy a pack of travel tissues. Curious. Ham and travel tissues? Why? I wondered but found nothing strange in my action.
Back into the vehicles again. I was beginning to become strangely fond of the little Dacia. Maybe it was the Palinka working, but I knew that having brought me safely this far, it would not let me down. The windows still hermetically sealed against the dust storm that our convoy of five vehicles now created on the chalk-like road, we headed back up into the low foothills.
Now we could see no other form of habitation. Another dark brown, muddy river tumbled from the mountains over rocks, alongside the track. No amenity saturated resort centre this. Ahead of us, the trees leaned in over the road, masking what lay beyond. As we emerged from the green arch, we pulled up a gravel path and into the front of, probably, the most amazing house I had seen since being in this country. With a roof to ground bay window, through which one could glimpse a fine, sturdy, wooden spiral staircase supported by a strong, thick copper column, it looked every inch the weekend retreat of a wealthy businessman from Germany or Switzerland. It should, by rights, have been located in Gstaad or St Moritz or some other millionaires playground, not in this rural backwater in the middle of... Romania.
Large shuttered windows gave on to wide, varnished balconies, giving a 360 degree view over the surrounding countryside. It was then explained that we were now on Forestry Commission land and that this house was, indeed, the weekend retreat of Government Ministers and Politicians. We were lucky that it was available but it was too early in the season for the Government to want it. I did fleetingly reflect that, as the Romanian Government is riddled from the highest to the lowest levels by rampant corruption of which it is doing its utmost to otherwise convince the EEC Commissioners, some village, town or community who really needed the money were probably still existing in abject poverty so that we, the Western elite, could enjoy a 'weekend in the country'. I felt ashamed.
It was then explained that only the 'families and couples' were staying here. There were not enough rooms for the 'singles'. We were being accommodated 'quite near'. It was now seven pm and the barbecue had not even been laid. If we were to stand any chance of eating before midnight, we should really get to where we were going, do what we had to do and get back to help with the preparations. It was also considerably cooler in the hills than it had been in the city and on the journey and so clothing additions were called for – namely, warm jackets, hats and perhaps gloves might be sensible?
Five of the six 'singles' were then squeezed back into a four by four which then careered off further down the chalk track. Bordered on the right by an extension of the muddy brown river tumbling over the river bed, the road was once again arched dramatically by pine trees and aspens. Now that sunset was nigh, I wondered how far away Count Dracul's castle actually was... There was now no bird song, the sun had
disappeared for the next 12 hours into the west and just a silent, stygian blackness remained, punctured only by the vehicle headlamps as it swerved and bounced down the track.
Suddenly, we swept down into a gravel car park. An Alpine Chalet winked invitingly at us from the other side of a robust wooden bridge across the rushing mountain stream. On the terrace outside sat a group of hikers, evidently recounting their day, flushed by the quantity of alcohol they had consumed since coming down from the hills. A warm and friendly entrance hall greeted us. Behind the monolithic, wooden reception desk stood a smiling friendly young lady. Yes, we were expected and yes we had rooms – but she was expecting six people and there were only five? We explained. She was happy and escorted us up a narrow flight of stairs to the upper level. She then continued up an even narrower flight of stairs into the space beneath the steeply pitched roof.
Everything was constructed of thick, varnished local timber. Deforestation will become a severe problem soon I thought. We were shown to Rooms 10, 11 and 14. We put the two boys in 10. One Australian and one, by now, wide awake 6' 2" Romanian beanpole. Neither on the small side, how would they get on in the close confines of a room measuring 8' x 10' containing one wooden chair and a modestly proportioned bunk bed?
The girls should be no problem. Of the four 'single' females, I was by far the largest and tallest. I claimed droit de seigneur on account of my age and said I didn't care who I slept with, but I was having the bottom bunk. Not having slept in a single bed since I was eight, I had visions of turning over in my sleep, missing the side of the bed and plunging the four foot straight down on to the hard, highly
varnished wooden floor in a face down position. My cat-like tendencies have long since disappeared.
Dump bags, don jackets, hats and cast a quick look around the room. Spartan, yes. Clean, yes. Lights... don't work. Towel? Whoops!! We all forgot to bring a towel!! Wash basin... nope... must be in another room. Walk down corridor looking for bath room. Find bathroom and immediately notice that one amenity NOT provided for in this lodge is... toilet paper. I wondered why I bought that pack of travel tissues!! Never done it before and will probably never do it again but I was so pleased that the old gut instinct still functioned!!
Towels were brought up by the smiling, friendly receptionist, who brought with her an unsmiling, unfriendly electrician to fix the lights. Giving me a baleful stare which carried all the accusation of his trade, he tried the switch as if to say 'you need to do THIS before the lights work'. When he had ascertained for himself that, truly, the lights did not work, he assumed a precarious perch on the one wooden chair and proceeded to dismantle the light fitting. As this was still, very obviously, connected to the main circuit which had the
rest of the rooms blazing out across the mountains, I decided that I would beat a strategic retreat in case my last impression of him was being blown across the room and through the window with his hair and extremities in a state of advanced electrocution.
My colleagues thought likewise and so we clattered down the two wooden staircases, out through the friendly reception, and back into the waiting many-horse powered conveyance for the drive back to the opulent Ministers' Holiday Home. Taste Buds watering in anticipation and appetites sharpened by the clear mountain air, we were getting into PARTY MOOD!
There again, I must leave you as I once more disappear off into the increasing gloom of a Romanian dusk...