Deep into the Apuseni

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.

Ascent into the Carpathians
Ascent into the Carpathians

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

Farming life
Farming life

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 wooden cabin constructed from local timber
Traditional wooden cabin constructed from local timber

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.

Closed until return of the tourist season
Closed until return of the tourist season

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.

Taxi!
Taxi!

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.

Bujor

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.

Bujor stops to cool and refuel
Bujor stops to cool and refuel

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.

A hard working landscape
A hard working landscape

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.

Traditional house selling traditional crafts
Traditional house selling traditional crafts

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.

Tempting, but no
Tempting, but no

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.

Our Renault (E)Fluence hire car - it really stinks
Our Renault (E)Fluence hire car – it really stinks

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.

Placinta cheese pies for sale. In a few months.
Placinta cheese pies for sale. In a few months.

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.

High tech laser display panel of the cave system
High tech laser display panel of the cave system

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.

Deep into the Apuseni

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”.

The 720m long glacier cave at Scărișoara
The 720m long glacier cave at Scărișoara

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.

Transylvania

Countless counts

…I know what you are thinking…

The best board game ever!
The best board game ever!

My visit to this notorious region of Romania has nothing to do with the works of Bram Stoker. His novel has spawned a micro-industry whose popularity in these parts extends no further than a smattering of tourist tat vendors. Indeed Bran Castle – the impressive “home” to count Dracula – begrudges one solitary room to the story.

Dracula's courtyard
Dracula’s courtyard

When 800 years of power have been wielded by monarchs and rulers from within these walls you don’t need to resort to fiction to tell a great story. Today the castle is a popular but worthy visitor attraction despite, not because of its literary affiliations.

BranCrown
Traditional Bran Castle headwear

Bran is one of many castles that lend a fairytale quality to the region. Bordered by the Carpathians and swathed in forest you really feel like you are travelling through some vast film set. Which would explain why Transylvania is a popular set location for film directors.

More palace than castle
More palace than castle

The royal palace of Peles near Sinaia might just have been penned by Walt Disney. I have been fortunate to visit the bonkers castle of Neuschwanstein in Bavaria and Peles left me with that same feeling of wonderment.

Astonishing detail and craftsmanship in every room
Astonishing detail and craftsmanship in every room

Despite any number of remarkable old buildings Transylvania’s greatest assets are natural. We don’t have anything as mountainous in the UK as the Bucegi range. One bright but breezy day we commissioned a 4WD tour to summit the Caraiman peak (the cable car was closed due to the winds).

Postcard scenery above Bucegi
Postcard scenery above Bucegi

Our hairpin ascent finally broke through the tree line to leave us in snow near the 7800 feet summit – almost double the altitude of Ben Nevis. In the winter months much of this area is transformed into ski resorts and I’m tempted to return and experience that elemental rawness, followed by the fireside hospitality of some welcoming lodge.

I forgot the flag again
I forgot the flag again

The valleys and foothills are every bit as dramatic and for the most part unspoilt. Perhaps the pot-hole strewn track into the Piatra Crailui national park has been instrumental in warding off developer attention. Our hire car is a suitably rugged 4WD Toyota Hilux (named “the beast”) which seems the minimum requirement for this route, until I see a Daewoo Matiz romping along the track, in a cloud of dust and detached body parts.

The Beast
The Beast

With a mere scattering of farming settlements and lodges the park offers peace and tranquillity. And this view…

Speechless
Speechless

A 6 mile walk through the valley unfolds a dream-like panorama. The snow capped mountain ridge dominates a dense forest that gives way beneath the foothills to a lush green valley and glacial melt-water river.

It’s hard not to be on the constant lookout for movement in the trees. Are we being watched? Brown bears live in this area leaving me torn between the desire to see one and the desire for it not to see me. Needless to say I witness no sign of bears or of the resident lynx, wolves or adders.

Born to be wild
Born to be wild

The marvellous Libearty Bear Sanctuary nearby in Zarnesti hosts 85 of these beautiful creatures, often rescued from incarceration . Romania has a bad track record on animal welfare. Many of the rescued bears spent their former lives chained up or caged outside mountain lodges in this region so it’s good to see a change in public attitude.

Stork - between delivering babies
Stork – between delivering babies

Today’s walk is not without its natural encounters. Disturbed turf where wild boar have been rooting for food. Beautiful horses roaming with a sense of freedom. Buzzards circling overhead and ungainly storks perching on one leg. Why do they do that?

Free to roam
Free to roam

Time outdoors here is restorative. The aches and pains of modern life evaporate and the week’s dietary excesses (see my previous blog on Romanian food) are forgotten, if not forgiven. My family are not so forgiving when the route I have led them on expects us to ford a fast flowing river. Like I’ve been here before…

Fording the river would have been more fun
Fording the river would have been more fun

A weathered shepherd materialises from the landscape to guide us across a concealed log bridge. Life must be very tough in the cold months when isolated communities like this are cut off in the snow. There is little in the way of automation for the many Transylvanians who spend their lives tending herds or growing crops. People here are tough – they just get on with it.

Sheep herding. Like the Peak District with bears
Sheep herding. Like the Peak District with bears

This landscape must be full of stories. People have witnessed a lot of change – the fall of communism, induction into the EU and creeping globalisation – but some things haven’t moved on. It’s common to see people working the land with a scythe. Horse drawn carts remain in widespread use, whether as an aide to farming or family transport.

A 1HP vehicle
A 1HP vehicle

Nowadays the shepherds are invariably fiddling with mobile phones and even the cart drivers are glued to Angry Birds, but Transylvania, like the Caraiman peak, rises dismissively above the diversions of modern life.

Countless counts
Countless counts

Even Dracula

 

A Taste For Romania

I have a theory that your typical traveller – inspired by the notion of a particular destination – researches the places they want to visit and later establishes the pragmatics of transport, accommodation and sustenance. Alternatively you could decide where you want to eat and then fit sight-seeing and travel into the gaps between meals. Guess which demographic I fall into…

Here then is a gastronomic journey through a day in Romania


Breakfast

In Romania on no account start as you mean to go on. You’ll see why later. Fruit makes a great start to the day in a country that produces an abundance of superb fresh produce. What could be better than awaking to cherries, apricots and strawberries?

Fridge fresh fruit
Fridge fresh fruit

Of course these have been freshly sourced from the food market in Brasov. Unlike some of the sanitised beardy middle class food markets I’ve encountered in London this is an honest traditional affair where sun-weathered farmers and growers sell their own produce to people of all standings.

Early season strawberries
Early season strawberries

I’m struck by the powerful sweet aroma of fresh fruit and wonder quite what British supermarkets do to so thoroughly sterilise natures work. Back at the ranch this all goes down so well with glass of buttermilk. Which lends the question – why, Why, WHY is buttermilk almost impossible to find in the UK when it is ubiquitous in mainland Europe?

Second Breakfast

Well, the first breakfast was just a taster after all. The sight and smell of home made sausages served with a mild sweet mustard and feisty green chilli remind me of visits to Prague, Germany and Austria.

Fabulous meat fingers
Fabulous meat fingers

They taste different however – a little more rustic perhaps, with a heavy infusion of herbs. I’m ready to start the day after this.

Elevenses

The life of a traveller can be exhausting. Not that I’m complaining about the lay-on in bed or prospect of a workless day but by the time one has dawdled through the pretty sun drenched side streets of Brasov a few pangs of hunger inevitably surface. Fortunately the city abounds with fresh baked produce. Kiosks serve a local speciality called Covrigi, mini pretzels topped variously with poppy seeds, mixed seeds, honey and nuts or even apple.

Cheese pastries
Cheese pastries

It’s the bakeries that so impress me, reminiscent in some ways of the truly mind blowing independent bakeries to be found all over Vienna. There appears to be a more limited choice when compared to their Austrian counterparts but simplicity of choice and freshness of ingredients always wins and these salty cheese pastries just need to be eaten. As do the sour cheese pastries. And the apple pastries…

Lunch

One of the joys of this part of the world (or most of Europe minus the UK) is the tradition of alfresco dining. With the midday sun beating down any number of parasol shaded café tables promise relaxation, people watching and the kind of food that speaks very well of a nation.

Bread of heaven
Bread of heaven

Pork rib stew served in a bread bowl raises baseless concerns of practicality. The walls hold, and what they hold is quite delicious. Yes you have to use your fingers with the submerged ribs but often it’s the messy food that plants the biggest smile on your face.

Making me Hungary
Making me Hungary

Soup is another stand-out choice. This Hungarian bean soup may have been poured from across the border but it’s authentic regional fare when you consider the commonality of ingredients not to mention some shared heritage, forged throughout various occupations. Pictures don’t do this soup justice. The intense brew of slow cooked richness is deeply satisfying and moreish, if not moorish.

On the theme of soup here’s something I simply had to try!

Carp broth with polenta
Carp broth with polenta

I can’t recall seeing Carp on any English menu but it’s widely available here. What a flavoursome fish, firm and heavy boned. Served in the broth it was cooked in this is a unique and memorable treat.

Perfectly pickled peppers
Perfectly pickled peppers

The stereotype of pickled vegetables in eastern Europe is justified and a day here would not be complete without some form of preserved accompaniment. The peppers are sweet, gherkins sour and the oddly pink cauliflower quite a revelation. I’ve long struggled with cauli as the English default of cauli with cheese sauce has worn thin for me and I’m never quite sure what else to do with it. Now I have the answer.

Afternoon Snacks

After lunch a stroll of the old town is in order. The square is lined with shops and cafes but my gaze is constantly drawn back to the mountains above, verdant and fresh at this time of year but snow lined during the skiing season. There is a real outdoors feel about this special place and that always triggers my appetite.

Ooh, free samples!
Ooh, free samples!

Brasov food hall is a dingy affair but a flying visit has its rewards. Cheese samples await the passing shopper and the ones I try are softer and sourer than the average English cheese but nothing short of yummy.

Too much choice
Too much choice

If cheese is an everyday food here then meat is an every meal food. This typical meat stall is nothing short of overwhelming in choice. Truly I wouldn’t know what to ask for and given that my Romanian linguistic skills extend only to Da (yes) and Bufnita (Owl) I doubt that a conversation would go well. Unless I wanted a fillet of Owl.

Nothing purchased on this occasion but back out in the open you are never far from another food retail opportunity.

Soft, hard, smoked or wrapped in bark
Soft, hard, smoked or wrapped in bark

This wholesome stall sold a typical array of sheep cheese and harder smoked cheese. The rounds on the right of the picture have been left to mature in tree bark. Wowsers!

Tiffin

If you think I’m a little unfair on my native country from time to time it’s because travel is about new experiences and they will inevitably be in relation to the ones I’m used to at home. If there’s one pioneering achievement that the British can proudly trumpet in these post colonial times it’s the invention of tiffin in 1782 by Vice Admiral Ralph Fortesque. I would never advocate the invasion of a country, subjugation of its people and ransacking of its natural resources, but the legacy of tiffin in former outposts like India and the Caribbean surely redresses the balance somewhat.

Chimney cake!!
Chimney cake!!

Whether my attempts to verbally procure tiffin failed because the Romanians have no concept of it, or whether it’s because the words Yes and Owl are insufficient for such a dialogue I cannot say. What I do know is that the local speciality of Kurtos Kalacs (Chimney Cake) makes for a worthy alternative. A light pastry mix is poured over a cylinder and rotated over a heat source before being sprinkled with a coating of sweet nut and sugar goodness. Lordy, I can get used to tearing pieces off and nibbling them with the excellent coffee you find in these parts.

Tiny fruit, big flavour
Tiny fruit, big flavour

Conscious of the need to create some space before the evening meal a short walk into the hills is just what is needed. Besides there are no edible temptations here in this unspoiled wilderness. Apart from the pea sized mountain strawberries hand picked and sold by a gypsy lady. Do try these if you ever see them – packed with flavour and pretty as you like.

Dinner

A may evening in Brasov is to be experienced. The falling sun casts the mountains and stylish old pre-communist villas into a dramatic light while the heat drops down a notch to a very comfortable temperature. Showered and changed my mood is lifted by the prospect of leisurely grazing in some attractive open-air restaurant. And you know, I feel like I deserve it…

Starters

I have always adored taramasalata. It’s a dish that I have always associated with Greece or Turkey and one that I expect to be rustic. Tonight’s eatery serves up an exquisite interpretation of taramasalata, fine and creamy. It’s delicious and consumed with the ever-present bowl of bread that seems to neither fill or disagree with you unlike the bread I typically encounter at home.

I could sleep in this
I could sleep in this

The soup is back! I love soup. Especially here where there is such a rich palette of choices. Besides, how could you possible say no to a tripe soup with sour cream? Fabulous! Really!

Tripe soup - so good!
Tripe soup – good for hangovers apparently!

I’m experiencing so much eye-opening new food, none more-so than the following speciality that, on the face of it, is bonkers mad. Soft pork fat served with red onions. Hear me out…

A million miles from port scratchings
A million miles from port scratchings

This is what you do. Take a bite of the pork fat. Enjoy it much more than you expected and start worrying that further consumption may shorten your life. Nibble a little bread. Sprinkle salt on the red onions, bite and chew. Be surprised that this tastes really good after the pork fat and bread. Take a swig of the palinka spirit to cleanse your palette and ignite your circulatory system.

All washed down with palinka
All washed down with palinka

Repeat. Enjoy. Try to understand why this just works so well. Fail. Resign yourself to confused happiness.

Mains

Meat. The country seems to run on it. There’s most probably a meat dessert if you know where to look. A platter provides a great way to sample different types without feeling too greedy. Not that I could ever be accused of being greedy of course.

Meat fest
Meat fest

Steak, liver, sausages. Lovely. Why wouldn’t you? The liver in particular was a delight because this is an old English classic that has been routinely abused with overcooking and latterly consigned to the prawn cocktail cupboard of bad 70s food. Done simply and with respect this remains a star attraction and I’m inspired to visit it afresh next time I’m planning to cook.

Royal eggs
Royal eggs

It’s not all meat of course but neither is it surprising that the vegetables are pickled. By the way, have you tried pickled watermelon? You really should. I found it a little challenging but I’m glad to have taken the challenge. Creamy polenta – apparently the secret is sour cream – topped with a fried egg with such a dark yolk that it must have been laid by chicken royalty. Great ingredients, uncomplicated cooking with a simple elegance.

Desserts

My heraldic title of #DukeOfPuddingshire may have been unknown here when first I arrived but needless to say my reputation soon spread. Indeed by the end of the 6 day visit my status at the tiny back-street patisserie near to my apartment escalated from stranger to regular cake pest through to notorious scoffer. They even made me a special cake on my last day (this is true).

Plum dumpling goodness
Plum dumpling goodness

Tonight in this more formal setting I have no choice but to evaluate the plumb dumplings. I first encountered these in Vienna and have subsequently made them although it’s trickier at home where there is not the same predictable supply chain of high quality bread crumbs. These are a little on the heavy side but good all the same. Perhaps better suited to the bitterly cold winter nights.

Mystery pud - I love you
Mystery pud – I love you

Given today’s “busy schedule” I can only manage one additional dessert and this one is very traditional. It’s called, actually I’m not sure what it’s called. Anyway, it is comprised of, erm, you know I couldn’t tell you. It has cream on top. It seems to have been imbued with some form of spirit. It is divine! Make it and see for yourself.

Drinks

I mentioned the palinka but did I tell you that it is typically 50% proof or higher? Served chilled as an aperitif this fruit brandy is the only way to start an evening meal here, unless you opt for the slightly weaker Tuica plum spirit which tends to weigh in at a more conventional 40%.

There is also a Romanian wine industry. Though not world leading if you choose well you will not be disappointed. I tried red and white varieties and really enjoyed their smooth enjoyable finish. Relatively simple and drinkable without being plain.

Beer of the bears
Beer of the bears

Although global breweries have taken over traditional local beer producers there remain some local brews and they tend to be your clear lagers with an enjoyable malty finish. Truth is I would rarely consider drinking a gassy or bland lager in Britain but the ones brewed here are tasty and pure by comparison. Salut!


I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I stepped off the plane which isn’t surprising given the UK media’s right wing obsessive tarring of the EU. They are constantly telling us that under EU rules British growers will be forced to only sell straight bananas, that spotted dick is to be outlawed and Belgian waffles are to be made compulsory with all meals. You should take all of this rhetoric with a pinch of salt, some red onion and palinka.

I seem to have developed a taste for Romania.