5 Nights in Transylvania 11.4.19

5.4.19 Luton Airport

Sweating my arse off on a Blue Air flight waiting for take off at Luton. The heating feels like it’s been pushed all the way to full and I’m hanging too. I was out with my new Spanish friends last night – Paula Valencia, Paula Lanzarote and Carmen Madrilena. I can’t decide who I should try to get with – Paula L or Carmen. They both seem keen. They are both pretty, chatty and fun. Carmen is more serene. Paula is crazier, funnier, sexier. My type but probably trouble. I’d be continuing a long-running pattern.

I have a new job. English teaching at the Blue School in Wells. It’s a right shithole. Who did they get to design and build these hell holes back in the seventies? Those people should be held responsible for the mental disaffection that millions of children (and teachers) have been subjected to. I imagine some of them must have been inspired by the architects of the Maze Prison. ‘Brutal’ and ‘maze’ are  words that don’t sit uncomfortably alongside the Blue School’s building design ethos but the first words that come to mind are ‘lost’ and ‘panic’ and ‘confusion’. Imagine how the kids must feel.

My life of work – and I am a person who enjoys, no, I think has to work – has always had an element of the greasy pole to it. Many people seem to get into something then climb the proverbial ladder. I seem to have consistently ignored the ladder in favour of a climbing frame. Once I felt guilty about this but now I’d rather nothing else. Why climb when you can clamber all over life? Why choose one path when there are so many available? I hope I never go back to doing the same thing all week until the day I croak.

First night in Bucharest. Late arrival.  Back to Eden Bar at 12.30/1. A tame tech house night being thrown. Wore off the whisky hangover from night before. Have paid for it since.

6.4 Bucharest

Breakfast at Cafe Athene in Hilton. Feeling sick. Another surly waitress. No smiles. Remember ‘it’s not easy to be a Romanian’ Nigel Shakespear. Caught in grim Saturday traffic as I head off to Sibiu. Realise it’s going to be 5 hours! Grey skies, grey plains. Pass through Pelesti notorious for having a prison during communist times where they got the prisoners (students) to torture each other to change their political views and scar them for life.

A dark haired woman with a waving hand. Elena.  Going to Sibiu. Crossing herself in the sign of the Trinity. Was I making her nervous? Elena like Julius in Crit doesn’t ask if I’m religious or not. She assumes it. I try to explain Protestant and Church of England to her. We chat using a mix of Italian, Romanian and English.

7.4.19 Cisnadioara

Leaning over a crumbling wall I look into the backyard of the main building – the village hall – of Cisnadioara near Sibiu. Another similarly yellow and faded house extends at a right angle at the far end of the hall. Part of the wall has fallen away leaving a grey bruise against the warmth of the yellow. The other 2 sides of this unspectacular square are bordered by poorly made dark grey walls. The grass between these 2 sides is patchy creating pale dusty squares like the crease of a cricket pitch at the end of Summer. Behind it all looms the dark tree-lined hill and behind that the white teeth of the Fagaras and beyond that the nothingness of sky.

Delicate even frail amidst the houses stands a tree, it’s trunk slender and curved into a bow and at the top of the arc a fork and above all a plume of white blossom shivering in the breeze loosening the odd white petal which spins towards me. Along with it comes the smell of orange blossom. There’s something miraculous about this beacon of life amongst the decay. A new life.

7.4.19 Sibiu

My first morning in Sibiu I flung my door to the courtyard open to see a pigeon drinking grey water from an oil drum. Ah, Romania. My ‘traditional Transylvanian’ boudoir was just that: a creaky dark wood bed, covered with a single duvet and a colourful handmade rug. Other rugs hung on the wall, one draped over a traditional pot with a floral pattern so that the pot appeared to have wings. The ceilings, low as they were, were vaulted like a monk’s cell. I suppose I was a little taken aback at the courtyard’s industrial feel which while maintaining some semblance of tradition seemed to be undergoing some essential maintenance. Signs of underdevelopment in Sibiu are there but they are also rare.

If you asked a British person their first thoughts when they hear the word Romania they might think of immigration, Romania joining the EU or those of a certain age – like me – would recall the dramatic scenes during the revolution and the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. I don’t expect many would imagine the elegant Saxon architecture of many of Transylvania’s old towns: Cluj, Sibiu, Sighişoara, Braşov and so on.

The essential organs of Sibiu are 3 conjoined squares, the biggest being Piata Mare, a vast, pedestrianised space lined on one side with the different coloured merchant houses of the Saxon settlers and the other the orthodox cathedral. The Western side houses the Brukenthal museum, containing the art collection of Samuel Von Bruckenthal, Transylvania’s governor from 1774 to 1787. Some of the highlights are 2 huge portraits by Rubens, a version of the Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Brueghel the Elder – still shockingly powerful unlike the censored version in the Royal Collection at Windsor – but best of all the diminutive but breathtaking Man in a Blue Turban by Van Eyck.

The greatest pleasure was not only seeing such masterpieces but stumbling over them in a place away from the big artistic institutions of the world.

Wandering off the main square you can soon get lost in the network of well preserved original steets. I could have spent hours wandering from one to the next through little covered passageways and up steps while getting a sore neck from having so much o take in.

A must see is also the small park at the west end of the Centre where you can stroll through the trees heading South until you’re greeted by the fortified walls and the incredible backdrop of the snow capped Fagaras mountains covering the entire horizon as you face South.

Sibiu is beautiful, refined and wonderfully devoid of those elements of tourism that we tend to expect now when we go to somewhere of interest.

8.4.19 Sibiu

Like last time, I’m communing regularly with ‘The Holy Trinity’. It’s too easy. However the old ticker has been rattling in its cage and once again I know it’s time to stop. 

Speaking of holy trinities I have taken to going back to church for the peace and quiet and yes, I say a   very little prayer. They got me when I was young, I suppose, and because of that it feels like nostalgia.

8 hours is a long time. 9 to 5. A normal working day. An 8 hour journey is one where you hope to have a break or by the last hour you’d be looking forward to your arrival. People don’t have sex or eat for 8 hours. Do they? And most people like to sleep for 8 hours.

Lying in bed for 8 hours awake is an unusual way to spend a night. What does one do? I steer away from reading because being wide awake is not the same as being alert. Often I have picked up ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ or some such well thumbed tome only to find the action has moved to a different country with a new set of characters. I know what you’re thinking. Yes, and I often do. That’s 10 mins gone. Then back to the thinking, the trying not to think and the breathing.

As the night marches on often I get more awake: more energetic, my heart beat a distinct thump in my wrists and behind my chin. Recently I’ve tried to think of the positives: yes I’ve been lying here for hours but I’m comfortable: warm and cosy. I pretend how little I have to do the next day. Today was travelling and sightseeing but there’s no doubt it was ruined. I hated Sighisoara and my pension. I was annoyed by the litter and tourists and spooked by rude waiters. It was only at about 7pm as the sun shone onto the Western towers and the colourful tiles of the clock tower that I came round to its charms.

However the worst part of it is the loneliness. A unique loneliness made more acute by the sense that I’ve got something wrong. I’ve messed up. It’s the same feeling that I had as a very young boy calling for mum from the top of stairs, even then unable to sleep.

And after she was asleep the haunting feeling that everyone else was asleep; the entire world asleep. It’s like the feeling of being late for lessons and all is silent. Everyone else is focused on the task but I’m left out. Alone. That feeling persists to this day.

9.4.19 Sighişoara

Sighişoara on a beautiful clear, crisp day and only the odd couple about in the citadel. One couple having a melodrama, the woman yelling at her lover about something then running away from him crying. A breakup, an indiscretion on his part or is she the one with the issues? Passed them again on the stairs in the clocktower  her eyes still red and wet. Reminders of similar holidays. All in the past now, thankfully.

The clock tower have the creakiest floorboards. Every one. Wouldn’t be a good place for a first girlfriend to live. I love the figures – one for each day of the week – who revolve and thereby face the rest of the town according to what day it is. Each one is a symbol of the Roman god to whom each day is attributed and meant I had to revise the etymology of our day names. Sunday the sun. Monday the moon. Wednesday Mercury. And so on. There’s a wooden balcony at the top and I was totally absorbed looking down on the angles of the old roofs, looking at the primary school kids running and shouting during break time at the school next door. Sleepy, sultry Sighişoara. Take me back.

Easier to walk in the gutter sometimes. The roads are too tricky. Is it a metaphor? Am I predicting my near future? Tempted to have a liaison on my last night in Bucharest.

Still feeling wobbly. Not hungover but highly strung.

9.4.19 Crit

Just had lunch (Saxon pork stew and pickled cabbage) at Casa Kraus in Crit and now lying in bed listening to the lazy intermittent ringing of a goat bell as its owner munches away outside my window and the buzzing of a bee.

This is more like the world that I wanted to find from ‘Between the woods and the water’: the priest house with its elegant furnishings and the fortified Saxon church next door. The tower in the fortification used for drying the lard – each family having their own numbered spot. The clutter of cultures and languages. This was another  Saxon community but many of them left during and after the Ceacescu regime. Now only 5 Saxon people remain in the village, only 5 people who are able to attend services at the evangelical church twice a month.

There is a timelessness about some of these villages. Phone networks haven’t yet reached many of these places perhaps because the people are too poor to have phones. I’ve only seen one villager on a phone in Crit, Mesendorf and yesterday in Malancrav, the other side of Sighişoara. It makes a welcome  change.

Yet these people are poor. There’s no 2 ways about it. 3 foundations have been set up in the Bunesti district of villages I am in, one sponsored by Prince Charles, a regular visitor to this area. Downstairs at Casa Kraus the guests come in the main entrance door up the stairs and there is a narrow room that extends across the front of the building with glass frontage looking across the valley to the road. If it weren’t for the furniture this would be the entrance hall and it is that too but there is a row of perfectly spaced wooden desks and chairs and a big cabinet with books and activities. This rather swanky guesthouse provides extra schooling for some of the local children from the poorest families.

And yes Transylvania is beautiful – I was really struck by this before – but yet it’s not. Many of the streams are clogged by plastic bottles and litter is strewn amongst the fields. In  Mesendorf many of the traditional Saxon houses are abandoned and falling apart. There is a mix here of Saxons, Romanians and Roma but Julius – my host – was clear about the Roma. ‘They steal and they drink. Some work but most don’t.’



Totally silent. Like the other villages. Something of the western here. The one street village, buildings on either side. The dusty track where horses kick up grey clouds that leave streaks across the car.

There was a moment earlier. One of those moments that you feel glad to be alive. Out of nowhere a vast, black cloud had arrived over Viscri. In the silence time was suspended. Time has been suspended here; it’s another age. There is a fresh breeze blowing through the centre of the village into my eyes. The sun is warm on my skin. Warmer than before. Then the rain starts. I feel the warmth and the little dots of cold. Warm. Cold. Faster and bigger. And the wind and the warmth and the coolness combine to create tingles through me. Why are we made to feel pleasure from such a random synthesis of natural phenomena?  There doesn’t have to be a reason.

And as I reached my car, the cloud burst and large drops bounced off the car making that hollow, tinny sound and out of nowhere there was some traffic. Four Roma men on the narrow, flat carts that I’ve seen everywhere driving the horse at a full gallop through the rain up the gravel track. Then another sturdy house galloping behind them. All this through heavy, dark rain. The men hunched over, the darkness of the features indistinguishable in the dark of storm light.


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