I’ve got to admit that I was slightly apprehensive about travelling to Romania on my own. I blame a combination of studying Gothic literature at A-level and an overactive imagination. I’ll admit to having compulsively checked the locks on all the windows before going to bed, because everyone knows the window is Dracula’s preferred mode of entry, but I’m pleased to say that apart from that nervous tick I not only survived the trip unscathed, but left with a new found respect for Romania.
I was feeling pretty sorry for myself upon arrival, having travelled with one of the worse colds I’ve ever had, and wanted nothing more than to bury myself in my hotel room and pray that my ears unblocked themselves soon. I was not, however, prepared for the journey from the airport into the centre of town, where I was to be staying that night. As the bus negotiated the dense, rush hour traffic, the sheer beauty of the buildings and parklands that were passing by blew me away. Vague memories of Bucharest being described as the ‘Paris of the East’ came floating back as we crawled past stately mansions decked out with balconies and turrets. Needless to say, all, well, most feelings of illness and fatigue fell away (it was a nasty cold after all), and I was keen to go exploring.
For a while I just revelled in the wonderfully forgotten freedom of being able to walk the streets alone after dark. Europe definitely has one up on South Africa in that respect. The old town has a buzz to it at night, with restaurants spilling out onto the streets and late night revellers sipping drinks inside painfully trendy bars. The streets in this tiny district (it’s less than 1km²) are tangled enough for you to feel delightfully disorientated, without the risk of ever actually being lost. Crumbling buildings rub shoulders with those that have been beautifully restored, and every corner holds a surprise in terms of architecture, whether it be a 4-storey art nouveau apartment block or a 16th Century Orthodox Church, like the Old Court Church of St Anton pictured below.
Of all the beautiful buildings I discovered on my wanderings, my favourite has to be Manuc’s Inn, a 19th Century caravanserai that occupies a whole block on the edge of the old town. Having been rebuilt several times, it is currently being lovingly restored to it’s former glory, right down to the quirky wooden pavements that apparently used to cover the whole of the city. I spent a glorious hour cocooned in the coffee shop located in a corner of the building, soaking up the spring sunshine and watching people pass by in the modern city square outside. People watching here is fun. I seemed to have stumbled upon one of the trendier locations, and saw a curious mixture of old ladies selling flowers, well-dressed business men, students chatting in groups, and young women dressed up to the nines in killer heels and bright red lipstick. What I really liked was the idea that just by shifting my seat to the terrace, I could escape the modern world entirely and dream away as I gazed upon the interior of the old courtyard of the inn.
If you ever come to Bucharest, I cannot recommend the free walking tours too highly. My guide was studying to be an architect, which was perfect for a city where you find so many different styles nestled together. Wandering on my own was fun, but getting to hear the history behind my discoveries was even better. It gave me a deeper understanding of the people I had watched go by, and of the lives they live in the city.
But, as anyone who has ever been to London will know, you can never judge a country based solely on its capital city. Escaping from the bustle of Bucharest, I ventured into the beautiful countryside of Buzau County. This is where I expected my rude awakening to occur. The big city had been a surprise, but surely now I would find the Romania of my foggy childhood memories. The one full of under-funded orphanages, where we send shoeboxes of toys every Christmas.
Thankfully, I was disappointed in this particular expectation. I won’t deny that there is poverty there, but it seems far less raging than I had been led to believe. Either that or I’ve become acclimatised to seeing a certain level of poverty from the last 18 months living in Southern Africa. The villages were by no means wealthy, but every house had a patch of land that was bursting forth with what would become food for the summer. It may just be the way I’m wired, but what I see as poverty in the city, in the countryside I see as simplicity. To my mind, people were living as my grandparents may well have done when they were children. Life was less complicated, and there were fewer things that they felt the need to acquire, but I’m not sure if they were any less well off because of that.
Lump me in with the French aristocracy of the 18th Century, who used to enjoy playing at being peasants, if you like, but I found the simplicity and beauty of the countryside refreshing. Everywhere I looked the trees were in blossom, the sun was warming, and gentle hills rolled out, blending into the horizon, green and inviting. Just being there you could feel the weariness dropping away. All I wanted to do was go and get lost in one of the many patches of woodland that surrounded me.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay there forever and had to head back to Bucharest to continue my journeying. My abiding memories of Romania will be of the wonderful warmth and hospitality I received from the locals, and of the slightly shabby beauty that I encountered everywhere I went. It was a great reminder that something doesn’t have to be new and perfect in order to be beautiful; the beauty of character creates a striking impression that stays with you far longer than anything something clinically beautiful could produce.