How best to describe the Apuseni region of Romania? This Carpathian mountain range emerges a 90 minute drive west of the northern city of Cluj. The hills become progressively more densely packed and dark forests of evergreen blacken the horizon, broken only by a few denuded golden deciduous trees that are fast succumbing to the season.
From time to time we rise out of from some deep narrow valley into a clearing to see rustic traditional wooden houses scattered like dots up into the hills within fields enclosed by hand crafted fences. A scattering of cows munch the steep slopes, their neck bells chiming bluntly as they move. Smoke drifts down into the valleys as villagers fend off a cold grip that descends when the thin autumn sun recedes
Every livestock owner is the process of assembling traditional tall and narrow haystacks for winter feed.
On our journey we regularly see piles of freshly hewn timber by the side of the road. It’s common to see a toothless old lady dressed in black walking between villages. Men in traditional hats work the fields, chop timber with axes, build new homes. Older men share a bench and talk, sparingly it seems. Words, like natures resources, are not wasted in these parts.
Traditional gypsy wooden horse drawn carts roll by like open narrow boats with only rubber tyres as a concession to modernity. Come nightfall these primitive carriages crawl perilously along pitch blank rural roads with no lights or reflectors. On a recent night drive in Transylvania the rear of an unlit cart loomed suddenly into view and I caught the fleeting snapshot of a shawled lady pointing a torch to the tarmac as two children hung onto her. The old ways and new ways don’t always mix well.
This is the region of the Motzi – a quiet spoken people, straightforward but welcoming. These hard working folk are thoroughly self reliant due to generations of life in largely unconnected communities.
The Apuseni sits in the outer fringes of Transylvania but has a distinct character. Closer to Hungary than Bucharest this is a land of folklore and tradition, tied inseperably to the environment. There are few major employers here. You sustain yourself, your family, your village from the land. Tourism is growing in importance as evidenced by the winter skip slopes in Vartop. The few visitors at this time of year are drawn to outdoor pursuits such as climbing, walking, cycling, plus the mountain air.
Although only modestly heralded on the international stage the Apuseni has world significance for cavers due to its extensive underground systems. A cave at Scarisoara contains the worlds largest underground glacier, which until relatively recent times served as a cold store for the villagers food in the summer.
My preparation for the visit didn’t turn up much information online. Romania is years behind the UK when it comes to the provision of information and services on the internet and the Apuseni is no exception. The extreme landscape means there are plenty of areas without a phone signal and when phoning to book a B&B (forget online booking!) it’s entirely possible the landlord will only check answerphone messages once every day or two when they are in range of a signal.
There are plenty of things to see and do that you only discover on arrival – just like how things used to be everywhere else. Our host at Casa Motolui – a through and through Motzi man – tells us that if we drive to the next village we will find a field where we can hire a horse and cart to take us to a waterfall. Sure enough we find 2 rough and ready carriages and their steeds, their respective owners sitting in silence with cigarettes in hand. We choose the more expensive carriage (approx £18) on the basis the alternative is a pony drawn death trap with a driver that looks like he’s on day release from prison.
Our driver is a friendly jovial Motzi and his steed – Bujor – looks up to the task of hauling flabby city types over rough tracks. The next hour is a non-stop delight, save from the constant fear we may fall off the carriage as it rattles alarmingly over the boulder strewn path. We roll by wooden hand crafted cottages and on into the woods. Our path crosses the stream a few times but the log bridges can’t sustain us and so we simply ford the water.
We don’t mind in the least that Bujor simply stops when he is tired and needs a break. At these times we hop off and walk alongside while he catches his breath, poor thing. This is a joyful experience despite the fact that we could have walked the route just as fast. One of the countless waterfalls in this area awaits us at the end of the track. It’s all lovely.
In the afternoon we drive out of the valley up hairpin roads that start off tarmac and become progressively rougher. Cows gaze on in curiosity while farmers spare us a glance before continuing with the business of the day.
It’s all so intimate and a little like driving through the shire of The Hobbit. Our destination is the village of Scarisoara and our first appointment is in an authentic traditional wooden dwelling that serves as a shop for the villagers to sell their craft produce. The timber beams are so low that I can barely stand upright and I wonder if that’s because malnutrition used to stunt peoples growth.
There are a wide range of hand made items to be seen, including a long Bucium wooden horn that looks a bit like a didgeridoo and is an historic musical instrument of the region. There is an attractive range of pottery, the ubiquitous palinca spirit and a selection of jams and syrups made from mountain fruits that I know will be bursting with flavour, all at ludicrously cheap prices.
Our Renault (ef)Fluence hire car is soon groaning under the weight of jam and we haven’t even started what we came here for.
Scarisoara owes its popularity to the world renown cave that awaits our visit. A pleasant 10 minute stroll up hill through the golden autumn landscape doesn’t hint at what is to come. We pass a number of abandoned wooden vendor tables and boarded-up vending huts adorned with signs advertising cheese pies and affinata (blueberry spirit) and it’s clear that this place gets considerably more busy in the tourist season.
The path leads to a wooden “office” where an unlikely looking ticket salesman barely looks up from the Romanian soap on his portable TV as he takes our payment. Only as we attempt to leave does he jump up and share some statistical facts about the cave while pointing at a couple of faded dusty hand-drawn schematics on the hut wall.
Armed with a few titbits of knowledge we head down a steep metal Escheresque starcase lining a great chasm in the ground. The descent is perhaps 100m, during which the temperature drops from 18 degrees to freezing. And that’s important because this cave is famous for containing the largest underground glacier in the world.
There isn’t a whole lot to see, largely because there are almost no lights down here, but it’s worth a visit if only to imagine the time when villagers used the cave as a cold store during summer. How did they get down here? Which poor soul had to make this perilous journey just to get something from the fridge? Were any villagers strangled for asking their returning partners to “just pop back down love – I forgot to mention we need some of that wild boar”.
This self-guided tour takes less time than the ascent. We have witnessed so much beauty and contrast today and yet there has been almost no sense of that raw display of nature being corrupted by tourism or commercialisation. The physical isolation of the Apuseni may go some way to explaining this but also perhaps it comes down to the mentality of the Motzi people. They have been living in their own way for a long time and they aren’t going to change any time soon. At least that’s what I hope.