The Motzi Immortal

It’s our final morning at Casa Motului. I may have indulged a little too enthusiastically in last night’s complimentary offerings of Palinca (plum brandy) and Visinata (sour cherry brandy) – spirits that sit in the 40-60% proof range. Many people make these popular Romanian spirits and I expect the proprietors generosity is enabled by considerable vats of home made produce.

I'm 94 you know
I’m 94 you know

This Sunday morning we are enjoying a leisurely breakfast when an elderly gentleman dressed in a tattered brown suit comes knocking at the door. It seems he is known by one of the owners sons who lets him in and lays out a very generous measure of visinata (!) for the chap. He approaches our table carrying a large sack over his shoulder and introduces himself by kissing M’s hand and telling us he’s 94, before producing a rustic hand made wooden jug from the sack. Would we like to buy one? It’s the kind of memento we would love to take home with us but it’s going to be too big to transport.

“But you have a car?” asks the gent. Yes, but we are flying home. “Where have you come from?”. England, we explain. He goes silent and wears an expression of incomprehension. We might as well have said that we were visitors from Mars. We give him little cash and some bananas that we aren’t going to get through and he works his way around the breakfast room, selling his entire stock before polishing off the visinata.

Market vith a view
Market vith a view

Sunday is market day in the remote neighbouring village of Ariesene and that will be our final port of call before we leave the Apuseni. We pack and drive the 2km into the village, passing our 94 year old friend who is just completing a slow walk back – a route that he could conceivably have been walking since the early 1930s. We have seen many old folk walking between villages. Hard work, pork fat and palinca have made the Motzi indestructible it seems.

Most of the market goers are elderly and some seem over dressed for the ocassion, possibly for church but also because standards must be maintained for any communal gathering. The social aspect of this Sunday market appears to be at least as important as the opportunity to buy things.

Fresh from the fields
Fresh from the fields

First impressions are of a street market you might find anywhere on your travels but on closer inspection there are some distinctive differences to the ones I’m used to.

Villagers queue outside vans that are packed high with cabbages. They are buying carrier bags full and taking them home to pickle. Sturdy men and women of pensionable age think nothing of hauling large sacks of cabbages, potatoes or onions on their shoulders.

A womans work
A womans work

One stallholder is selling live chickens for 25 lei (£5). Their young child sits quietly in a carboard box next to a cage and a lady playfully asks whether the boy is for sale.

Little chicken
Little chicken

Several clothes stalls are run by gypsies who have travelled from further afield. Everything looks second hand and nobody here is likely to have the money or time for designer gear.

More cowbell
More cowbell

Farmers and smallholders are well catered for. My favourite stall is selling leather bridle gear and the type of alpine cow bells whose dull chime you regularly hear in these parts. Nearby I see a display of wood cutting equipment. A frail lady who looks around 80 years old is lifting a heavy axe with a sturdy 4 ft handle. She scrutinises the blade and feels the balance and I wonder if she will be chopping the logs or whether this is a purchase for a younger family member. Part of the appeal of this market is imagining the lifestyles and livelihoods of the buyers and sellers.

An axe for every ocassion
An axe for every ocassion

Today we are not in the market for cabbages, axes or cowbells (in retrospect I wish I had bought a cow bell) but some hand made mountain cheese would be welcome. Given the variety of produce on sale it’s a little surprising that there is no cheese to be seen. We are given a tip-off to continue down the road past the school and ask at the third house on the left…

Beyond the crowd
Beyond the crowd

We leave the hubub of the market behind. Some free roaming cows have crossed the river to graze and block the road. Just as we think we must have gone too far we spot a(nother) little old lady standing quietly by herself outside a normal looking home. We furtively ask about the “brânză”. She tells us that we need to speak to her daughter and beckons us to follow her through the garden to the back door. The daughter appears and explains to us that she has no cheese ready at this moment but she does have milk and can make some for us if we are able to come back in the afternoon.

In a parallel universe we hang around until later because fresh cheese made by hand from milk of the mountains is going to be out of this world! Unfortunately our return to Cluj cannot wait and we are left to imagine what we are missing out on.

The cheese episode serves as a metaphor for so many travel experiences, whereby a tantalising glimpse of some other world raises more question questions than it answers. During our short visit to the Apuseni I have learned that the hard working Motzi people have an intrinsic bond with this remote rugged landscape. In these times of dizzying change they maintain their long standing relationship with the land and livestock.

Stubborn as a mule
Stubborn as a mule

We drive gingerly through the crowded market street on the start of our journey home and give way to a cart coming the other way. As it draws alongside us the horse decides to stop and will simply not be moved. There is quite a scene with traffic backing up and all eyes are focussed on this mini drama until a stallholder intervenes. He picks up and moves from the pavement a small silver toy windmill that spins in the breeze. The horse is pacified and on he trots. This muscular working horse was simply frightened by a shiny toy and this random Motzi man had the innate understanding to realise the problem and know how to handle the horse. Sometimes it’s the little things that leave a lasting impression.

I hope to return to Motzi country some day and when I do I hope to find it just as I left it. Just with freshly made cheese.

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.