September 2012

Indian Summer 

A quick run through Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania & Bulgaria

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When we left Lithuania, it was September 10.  We had firm plans to move directly south into Romania, spend a week or so, then make tracks for Bulgaria, where we knew mail would be arriving shortly.  We really detest “keep moving” plans, but had long known that if we wanted to spend the fall in Turkey we would end up having to do a “speed run” through some areas we really want to spend some quality time in.  (You may remember our “best laid plans” from last year, whereby we would truck on into Turkey after visiting Bulgaria – waylaid by those damn broken wheels.) 

So on we went.  And for the first time this year, it was getting warmer and warmer.  The entire season in northern Europe had been quite cool – you’ve heard us whine about it more than once, and you should have heard the locals along the way; nobody in northern Europe has had a nice summer, weather wise.  But suddenly we were driving along with the windows open, putting the portable heater away, and digging through piles of clothes to find our shorts.  It was quite nifty!  

There are only two roads into Poland when you leave Lithuania.  They both poke through a relatively narrow open corridor between Belarus and Kaliningrad (part of the Russian Federation); as a result, your roads south from the Baltics are full of trucks until they pull off to head over to Warsaw or into Belarus or, further down, Ukraine.  We had lots of company.

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Poland, Slovakia and Hungary are all on Central European Time, an hour behind the Eastern European Time we’d been on since Finland -- and would re-join when we reached Romania.  But we ignored all that; we wouldn’t be in these countries long enough for it to matter.  They flitted by – although we did have time for a few adventures along the way.  We kept to the eastern edge of Poland, it being the most direct route.  This took us down a major, major truck route, and close to the eastern border all the way.  

Poland was something of a disappointment for us, but we don’t think it was Poland’s fault; we never really got the feel of the place.  It being the end of summer, harvesting was being completed and rubbish was being burned in many fields along the way.  The air was hot and smoky.  Eastern Poland was largely a poor area, with plenty of shabby housing, horse and cart combos, and people transporting themselves by bicycle.  But we did notice we were seeing billboards for stores and companies we’d not seen since we left the Balkans.  We were, indeed, getting further south.

After awhile many of the trucks veered off onto different routes and the road became much quieter and more pleasant.  The scenery got a bit nicer, with apple orchards in some areas, and we bypassed several sights we knew we would come back to visit another year.  Eventually we dropped down onto the plains and then crossed into Slovakia.  

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Slovakia was going to be a bit of a mystery to us, as we’d not been able to find out much about the country ahead of time.  Relatively few travelers’ journals were available, so we didn’t have much overnight parking information.  But I’d come across an English couple’s site that discussed a spot where they’d been able to take on water.  This was terrific, as throughout Poland water had been unavailable at service stations, and we were quite low.

We were quite pleased to be in Slovakia.  At the border we discussed whether or not we needed a road vignette.  As it turned out, one was not necessary: we would not be using the autostrada, the only road that required one.  We climbed a pass into a pretty area that was known for its old wooden churches, a couple of which were right along our route.  It was great fun to get our cameras out again, poke around tiny churchyards, and stand amazed at these lovely wooden constructions going back to the 1600’s.

Slovakia is going to be lots of fun to come back to; and by then I’ll have done a better job gathering information.  We can tell you that we saw tons of Skodas there, as they are made locally, and that suddenly the people we saw along the roads looked more “Eastern.”  Oh, and we did find the recommended spot for filling our tanks with fresh water.  Hurrah!

We drove along a road in pretty lousy condition, but through pleasant countryside with rolling hills and fields that had been harvested.  There were plenty of trucks but they weren’t overbearing, it wasn’t smoky and there was a nice breeze, and we drifted on… into Hungary.  Now Hungary I knew more about.  We specifically were heading for a dinky little area in the far eastern corner of the country.  It was near the Tokaj wine grape region, but I was looking for plum jam.  This little corner of the world was well known for this special item, and I wanted some!  Well, not surprisingly, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds.  

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We picked up a vignette at the border, as most of the roads require one and it’s not worth the potential hassle of going without.  We made a decided turn further east, heading for the village of Tarpa, deep in plum territory.  This, the Tisza River delta area, is a very poor section of a very poor country, but we found it rather charming.  There were fields of drying sunflowers and cornstalks, along with lots of orchards with huge ripe red apples being harvested and carted to processing plants.  The orchards were interspersed with sections of forest and fallow fields where the work was finished for the year.

We went through a swampy area, reclaimed in modern times but still filled with ancient houses on stilts and trees containing huge clumps of mistletoe, and crossed over almost into Ukraine.  Entering Tarpa, we went in search of jam.

Not speaking any of the language and not seeing any roadside stands selling the stuff, all I could think to do was to find the women who make it, so I started in a small grocery.  I walked in, found a half dozen ladies doing their shopping, and started asking if anyone spoke English; of course not.  So I began looking for jars on the shelves, thinking this would give me something to point at.  Well, to make a long story short, folks figured out what I was looking for and one lady took me in hand.  She rode her bike and we followed behind, through the streets of the village, as she knocked on a few doors and got no answer but finally coming to what she said was her last hope.  And the lady was at home.

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As it turned out, what I was looking for wasn’t actually available.  I wanted like – you know – jam!  What the lady had was the stuff the jam would be made from.  This isn’t like your mother’s jam, stirred on the stove, pectin added, and put into jars to be sold.  The mixture was in a huge clay pot, in the process of reducing down to where it would next be further processed.  But it never gets cooked.  The clay pot does the job, and the jam never goes bad apparently.  And, even better, it’s also used to make an absolutely nasty brandy that my book said would raise the dead.  

 Having gone through all this, and having gotten the entire village all stirred up (pardon the pun), I couldn’t refuse to buy some of this glop.  So the lady weighed out a half-kilo (!!) for me, I gave her 2,000 Hungarian what-evers (about $8.50), we all smiled and giggled and hugged, feeling good about what we’d accomplished, and then Rick and I went on our way.  The whole adventure was a hoot, and the town will be talking about us for months.  

By the way, the “glop” was pretty useless all by itself, but I mixed some with a jar of honey I’d bought from the bee man in Lithuania, and it’s delicious.

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On beyond Tarpa and the plum jam, we soon entered Romania, a country we’d been looking forward to visiting in depth.  We had already realized that a long visit would necessarily be put off until next year, but had picked an area in the far northern part of the country in which to spend a week or so; often looking right across the border at Ukraine, pondering a possible future visit. 

Romania’s northern boundary with Ukraine is very rural and old and full of two really cool kinds of things:  even ancient-er wooden churches than the ones we’d seen in Slovakia, and the famous painted monasteries of Moldavia.  We spent our week wandering among and seeing as many as we could of both.  They were wonderful.

First things first, crossing the border had its usual adventures.  We were, finally, leaving the Schengen footprint, and we were worried because we’d been in-Schengen for considerably longer than 90 days (just over five months in all).  The fellow took all our paperwork and retired to his office, leaving us sitting in the sun for what seemed like a long time but really wasn’t.  Finally Rick went to see if there was a problem; No, just a lot to do today.  So we gathered our documents, noting both the exiting Hungary and the entering Romania stamps, and went on our way, quietly exhaling.  Down the road we came to a fuel station and bought our vignette for Romania’s roads; hope all these vignettes do some good – the roads sure need the extra funds.  

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Got some Romanian funds at the Banca Transilvanie (gotta love that name) and we were in business.  By the way, Rick has been going nuts with all the different currencies we’ve been using.  So far (through Romania) we’ve been in fifteen countries this year with only six of them on the Euro; the other nine have each had their own money, with three of them flitting by in the past week! 

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On the western edge of all this religiosity we were heading for the cemetery at Săpânţa, known as the Merry Cemetery because of the charming, upbeat, colorful wooden grave markers.  They were quite marvelous and we, along with many other folks, thoroughly enjoyed them.  Death doesn’t have to be a sadness; these grave markers have all been painted by, originally, this one fellow who’s idea it was to celebrate the lives of those who had died with stories of their lives and upbeat likenesses of them along with multi colored decorative elements.  More recently another person has taken over from the now elderly originator of the idea.  It’s a very special place. At Săpânţa we also saw the first of the wooden churches of the area.  It is currently being restored, and is covered with scaffolding, but it will be stunning when they finish.

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We spent several days meandering through villages and visiting some of these churches, each one unique but all with common characteristics: small, hundreds of years old, square within and topped with a very tall spire and skirts protecting the exterior from the elements.  They are masterpieces of the woodworking art, and many are protected as World Heritage Sites.  On Sunday afternoon we saw groups of women in traditional dress sitting on their stoops passing the time of day and gossiping with those who passed by.  On other days we saw women washing clothes in the stream, carrying buckets of water to houses that had no well, and… most interestingly, an elderly woman riding a bicycle and talking on her cell phone.  Two ends of the spectrum.  During the week, both men and women were working hard in the fields; digging potatoes was the current project.

We also spent two charming days on the outskirts of the village of Bǎrsana, parked on the edge of a field and beside the road that the residents of the area used to go about their daily business.  Most were using horse-drawn carts, but we saw one team of oxen and a few old tractors as well.  They moved hay and potatoes and drums of water from field to house to town and back again and the animals were beautiful; all looked healthy and well fed.  Some folks came by several times, and we’d all wave back and forth and exchange greetings.  It seems they got quite used to us; we hope they were disappointed when we finally moved on.  The weather was lovely the entire time, with soft light and beautiful evenings.  It was a very peaceful and pleasant interlude.

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We thoroughly enjoyed being in this valley, and realized the road and the countryside were the reason for being here, the sights to see just the excuse.  

Finally moving on, we crossed over the mountains into the Moldavian region, to see some of the famous painted monasteries.  Again, well worth the effort.  There are several of these gems; we stopped at four of them and felt we’d absorbed as much as we could.  They are called “painted” because not only are there frescoes inside, but outside as well.  The monasteries are in country settings, and the grounds are often quite lovely.  As you enter, you are immediately overwhelmed by the view of the church inside the cloister area, with its walls covered in brightly painted pictures.  Where protected, or restored, the paintings look as fresh as when they were first produced, in the 15th-16th centuries.  Truly remarkable, they were a joy to see.

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Our wanderings in northern Romania were on generally very bad roads, tiny winding paths into nowhere at the ends of small valleys in rural forested areas; it was great.   We often shared the road with cows and sheep and goats and wagons bringing lumber down off the hillsides.  Reluctantly, we finally decided it was time to rejoin civilization, and began looking for a more major road, a town that had groceries, a chance to pick up some wifi.  But it had been a great experience, and we really think you’d enjoy this area.  Catch it soon, before it becomes too touristed.  We came across tour busses at most of the monasteries, but were able to work around them, waiting for the groups to move on as needed.

Heading south, we dropped down out of the mountains, through valleys with lovely streams meandering along (and sometimes steep gorges), finally rejoining the “real” world at Gheorgheni, in the Mures Valley… in Transylvania.  We so much would have liked to stay and explore this region, the most famous part of Romania.  But we promised ourselves that we’d be back in the spring – and continued our route south.

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Leaving the mountains (and then foothills) behind for good, we dropped down into the wide Danube River Basin, around Brasov and Bucharest and finally to the Danube River itself, where we crossed over into Bulgaria on a very old and rusty over-trafficked bridge and headed straight for our familiar campground outside Veliko Tarnovo.  We stayed there for most of two weeks while we gathered in mail and various other packages, rested a bit, did a ton of projects, including a bath and shine for La Tortuga, her first since April, and prepared for a late fall in Turkey.  Turkey!  Finally Turkey!  

While at Camping Veliko Tarnovo, we met some pretty cool folks, first a British couple who had relocated here and had bought a home.  A very nice used bookstore in VT is providing some income for them, along with an active house remodeling business.  We’ve also met another couple (either more or less exotic depending upon where you call home!) – Americans who have been living and working abroad much of their adult lives and who are currently “90-day nomads” as they live most of the time in Europe while dodging the requirements of the Schengen agreement.  The six of us spent a weekend together, exchanging thoughts and books and information on all sorts of subjects.  It was great and constantly stimulating, and we had a terrific time.  

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At weekend’s end we left them all to get back to their various projects -- writing, photography, bookstore to be run, you name it -- while we trundled on over to the Bulgarian coast where we’ve settled for a couple of days on a bluff overlooking the Black Sea.  We have projects to finish, info on Turkey to absorb, and our plan of attack on this new huge country, our very first foray into Asia, to finalize.

So we leave you to enjoy the changing seasons wherever you are.  We had a love/hate relationship with the hot weather on the plains near VT, where the moon was full and hanging heavy in the evening sky at the close of the warm days.   Since then there’s already been a change in the weather and it’s much cooler, particularly here on the coast, where we sit just north of the Turkish border.  Life is good (which seems to be our signature sign-off these days).

Rick and Kathy, heading off to explore Turkish Delights

PS: This is a pretty short message, with room for fewer photos.  Be sure to go to the photo page to see all the pictures.

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© Rick & Kathy Howe 2001-2018