Soars, Viscri & the obligatory Charles rant

To Soars, a small village just over the hills from Fagaras, a village in which Mother-in-law of Bucharest Life worked (at the mayor’s office) for a time in the 1980s. Some friends have a house there, and as we were at a loose end this holiday weekend we decided to go: we hadn’t been for getting on a decade.

Soars

Soars

Soars

Our rather agreeable accommodation in Soars

First thing we noticed is that mobile phones now work in the village (those of the Orange variety at least). On our last visit there was no signal of any real strength via either of the main networks, and making a call quite literally meant waiting until the wind was blowing a bit and then climbing up on to the church roof.

Soars – like almost all of the villages in the area – was a Saxon settlement all but abandoned in 1990 when the population upped sticks and fled to Germany. Few have returned. The village (like most in the area) is struggling. Although it’s just 12 kilometres from Fagaras the extremely poor state of the roads turns the journey into a bone-crusher that can take a good half an hour or more. And as we were to discover, the road from Fagaras to Soars is – by the standards of the area – relatively good.

Soars, you see, is not far from Viscri, currently the most en vogue village in Romania. It has been made famous by none other than our eternal nemesis, that great friend of Romania, Prince Charles, who owns property there.

Indeed, it is difficult to even mention Viscri – not least if you are English – without the name of the heir to the British throne cropping up. He is almost invariably mentioned in glowing terms, and when we proffer our own views on the man, offence is sometimes taken. Quite why, we have no idea. As we have said before (many, many times) the man is no friend of Romania, nor the Romanian countryside and absolutely not the Romanian peasant. His entire world view is based on the simple idea of ‘know your place’. To Charles, peasants were born peasants because that’s the role they were assigned in the grand scheme of things, just as princes, kings and queens were born to rule. The notion of social mobility, of peasants becoming kings, queens, princes or astronauts is one Charles rejects. His work in Romania is therefore all about keeping peasants exactly where they are, ensuring that they know their place and obey their betters.

Anyway, being so close to Viscri (at least we thought) we decided to pay the place a visit, to see what kind of fame and riches the patronage of Brian has brought the village. We are alas inclined to report (not without a slight hint of ‘we told you so’ in our voice) that the place remains more or less as it was pre-Charles: a bit of a dump.

Viscri

Viscri

The Fortified Church at Viscri

The Fortified Church at Viscri

Certainly, the village’s fortified church is impressive and worth a visit if you can get there (more on that subject later). A couple of houses have been renovated and offer accommodation, and the village pub appeared to be doing a roaring trade. Outside some of the village’s houses locals had put handicrafts and such like on tables in the hope of attracting the odd buyer, yet the overall impression you get visiting Viscri is much the same as that you get anywhere else in the Romanian countryside: poverty and desperation. If this is a showpiece, Potemkin-village, woe betide a few other places (such as Rotbav, a village through which we drove – at 10kph, the road does not allow you to go any faster – the following day. We’ve not seen such utter, grinding poverty since we climbed aboard the wrong bus while visiting Teotihuacan and ended up in one of Mexico City’s most desperate favelas).

As it is, Viscri today is the Romanian countryside in the image of Charles. For him, Viscri is more or less as good as it should get for a Romanian peasant. A home made of traditional materials, some land to farm (using traditional, back-breaking methods of course) and a regular stream of visitors to keep the village’s pensions in business. Why would anyone want more? Why would anyone aspire to the kind of life that, oh, Charles himself enjoys? A life of unadulterated privilege and luxury? No, dear peasants: such things are not for the likes of you.

No indeed they are not. For while Charles might want to make the life of the Romanian peasant (or at least some of them) a little less uncomfortable, he would be horrified if the population of the entire Romanian countryside decided en bloc to down tools in order to demand something better. Like the troopers sent to wipe out the Diggers’ claim on St. George’s Hill he would tell them to know their place and get back to work else they feel the wrath of their masters. So spare me the ‘friend of Romania’ bollocks. Charles is a reactionary determined to conserve the existing social order. If he genuinely cared for the Romanian peasant he would be trying to turn that order upside down. Yes, he may bring in a few tourists, but then so does Dracula, and you’d hardly call him an agent of progressive social change.

Viscri then, is not yet a model for the for the future of the Romanian countryside, neither is it the kind of place we could ever see ourselves settling down. For what it’s worth, there are plenty of other villages and churches in the area far more worthy of your time: Cincu and Mosna in particular. Even Soars – though its fortified church is little more than a ruin these days – is a far nicer place in our opinion than Viscri. And all of the places we have mentioned offer far better access than Viscri. The newly restored fortress at Rupea is also worth a look.

Which brings us to perhaps the biggest problem facing the old Saxon villages: the roads.

For all our objections to the happy peasant ideal, we have no doubts whatsoever that there is a genuine, special charm to the entire area. We by and large loved our time there. We are convinced that agro-tourism is a genuine alternative to working the land, and a way out of poverty and subsistence farming. Where we do have doubts is with the idea that such a route is available to anyone: right now it certainly isn’t, as although there are plenty of visitors, there simply aren’t enough. (There are also a number of other bureaucratic obstacles facing anyone wanting to open a pension. One is the need to obtain a ‘fire evacuation route’ certificate from the county fire brigade. Even if your property has just one room and one exit, the certificate – without which you can’t legally operate a pension of any kind – costs €1500).

Yet the biggest reason there aren’t enough visitors is that the shockingly poor access puts them off coming. Even celebrated Viscri is accessed via a terrible road (the DJ104L) from Bunesti or an even worse road from Rupea, via Dacia. Taking either route risks seriously damaging your car. The kind of potholes on the road are not the kind you see in Bucharest or other Romanian towns: these are more like bomb craters. With the exception of the DJ105 from Cincsor to Agnita, and the DJ141 from Barghis to Medias – which are OK – every road in what should be ground zero of Romanian agro-tourism looks as though it has suffered from a prolonged shelling campaign by an enemy army. The roads we have marked on the map below are all but impassable. In most parts of Europe they would be closed to traffic. Driving the 30 km from Soars to Viscri takes 90 minutes. Even in the unhurried world of the Romanian countryside, it puts you off.

Finally, by total coincidence, as we were enjoying our rural experience this weekend another of those ‘Romanian-travel-pieces-by-numbers‘ appeared in the LA Times. The usual suspects wet themselves.

You probably know our views on the subject (we have, after all, more or less outlined them all above).

For us, the clue is in the title of the piece: ‘Europe as it once was’. Now ask yourselves: Why? Why is the rest of Europe no longer like rural Romania?

Answer: (For the zillionth time) Europe long ago realised that it doesn’t want to live like a peasant. It doesn’t want to be sentenced to a lifetime of back-breaking agricultural labour using only medieval-era tools.

If other Europeans long ago decided they don’t fancy a lifetime of subsistence farming, why should Romanians be any different?

Answers on a postcard please.

Country Life: A Month in Bucharest Life

It’s been a nomadic month.

Our brush with Greek Life was followed by a week in the increasingly nasty police state that is Turkey, where Brother-in-law of Bucharest Life – a major in the Romanian army – is currently serving (and enjoying a rather luxurious existence courtesy of Nato).

Then to England, where, amongst other things, we were delighted to discover a Romanian grocery has opened not five minutes walk from Mother-of-Bucharest Life’s house.

brasoveanca_morden

We bought seeds.

After a pit stop at the thermal baths in Debrecen, Hungary, we then decamped to Petresti, Satu Mare, for our annual peasant experience.

Highlights included playing Kwik Cricket on a pitch that might well be described as ‘unpredictable’ (thanks to Cricket Romania for shipping the set up to deepest Petresti), naming more than 40 rabbits and picking our own corn, melons and basil (which, we hasten to add, we did not eat altogether). The unquestioned low point of our sojourn la tara was a bout of hayfever as bad as we’ve had in years. And to think some people insist hayfever is a ‘made up’ ailment.

'Might do a bit, that pitch'

‘Might do a bit, that pitch’

Leaving the kids in the wilderness (you can read about Bucharest Life Jr. In Exile here), we returned to Bucharest with a Tarom flight from Satu Mare: no night train to Bucharest for us this year. Why? All rather simple: the Satu Mare-Bucharest sleeper now costs 261.50 lei (€59) per person for a berth in a two-bunk cabin. The journey takes almost 16 hours (if there are no delays: there usually are).

satu mare-bucuresti nord

Tarom charge €63 for a one-way flight taking just over an hour (although note that to get that price you need to reserve a week or so in advance).

We are not huge fans of Tarom: it’s inefficient, badly run, bleeds money and relies on huge state subsidies to survive. It should probably be put out of its misery (or, better, sold off to a foreign airline/private investor). But as long as it goes on offering flights as cheap as the train we will have a soft spot for it.

Back when we began our mini-European tour, the taxi driver taking us to the airport told us that the days of cheap, honest taxis at Otopeni were coming to an end: there are apparently plans to restrict access to a ‘select’ group of taxis charging a minimum 3.50 lei/km. So far, this has not happened, neither have we seen anything about it in the press. Taxi driver scaremongering, hopefully.

Still very much on the subject of motorised urban transport, we were a bit down on Uber when it first tipped up in Bucharest: we couldn’t quite see the point. A couple of months on and we are sold. We use it all the time, the primary reason being that you do not need to worry about having any change (indeed, you don’t need any money at all). We finally gave in and started using Uber after a particularly obnoxious taxi driver refused to accept 13 lei for a 14 lei trip (we had 13 lei in change, or a 100 lei note). He had no change of course, and insisted we go and change the 100 lei note somewhere, as though it were our fault he isn’t smart enough to carry a float. Uber it is from now on. (Another advantage is being able to use the same app and account anywhere Uber is present: we used it in London, much the chagrin of our black-cab driving cousin).

Finally, the month would not be complete without a word on politics.

It is silly season in Romania as much as anywhere else of course: parliament is on holiday, as is the walking-wounded prime minister Victor Ponta, who in almost all public appearances following his return from medical treatment in Turkey rather ostentatiously used a pair of crutches. (For the first few days after his return Ponta also sported one of the most pathetic beards in political history).

Handicapped.  Click for source.

Handicapped.
Click for source.

Anyway, besides having to look on as president Klaus Iohannis quite rightly vetoed his utterly irresponsible giveaway budget, Ponta has also now been formally charged by the Romanian Anti-Corruption Unit, the DNA, with all sorts of naughty goings on (until then, he had merely been a suspect). Interestingly, Ponta then resigned as leader of the PSD ‘to spare it any embarrassment’ but has stayed on as prime minister (the message being clear: it’s OK to embarrass Romania). The PSD responded to Ponta’s resignation by electing Liviu Dragnea (who was recently found guilty of rigging a referendum) as interim leader. You couldn’t make it up.

What you most certainly can make up is the story that Ponta was arrested last week by American police for speeding (the great Romanian patriot has of course gone to the US for his holidays). Bizarrely, a rumour to that effect was doing the rounds in the market in Carei last week. Furthermore, according to our father-in-law (not always the most reliable of sources) Ponta had even been prevented from leaving the US.

If only.

Bucharest Metro Challenge: A New Record

Remember the Bucharest Metro Challenge? We first did it in 2010, had our record beaten in 2011 and then failed to get it back in 2013.

Well, there’s a new standard to beat: Costin Iftode’s time (which had stood since 2011) has been beaten by Razvan Ionescu and Călin Darie, who did it a couple of weeks ago in 3 hours, 18 minutes and 15 seconds. You can read all about it here (in Romanian).

We plan on having another go sometime this summer.

Straight out of the petty-nationalist textbook

How many times have we seen this kind of thing?

If, as a foreigner, you dare to suggest that Romania is anything less than perfect (or that it may not have been perfect at some point in its entire history) you can expect a three-pronged attacked from petty-nationalists.

First off, a personal insult.

Second, the suggestion that – as a foreigner – you have no right to comment on Romania in anything other than glowing terms.

Thirdly, you will be told that your country is as bad or worse.

This, therefore, is straight out of the petty-nationalist textbook:

Textbook-stuff

This was the original post we had the temerity on which to comment.

A story worth telling

Made_in_RomaniaAfter a week in Greece we decamped last Monday to Istanbul, where Brother-in-law of Bucharest Life – a major in the Romanian army – is currently stationed with Nato. (That Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta left Turkey the day after we arrived was a coincidence).

Anyway, one of the highlights of the week was a visit to this place: the Rahmi M. Koc Museum. Ostensibly a transport museum, it is a whole lot more: we expected to spend half an hour looking at a few old trains but ended up spending much of the day there. It’s a huge museum with an extensive range of exhibits both inside and out, including loads of hands-on science stuff for the kids, an amazing classic car collection, a submarine (which you can explore) and a narrow-gauge railway offering trips up and down the Golden Horn. Oh, and a locomotive Made in Romania.

Yet of all the gems on display, perhaps the most amazing is this American World War ll bomber, Hadley’s Harem, which crashed into the sea off the coast of Southern Turkey in 1943 while trying to reach Cyprus after being hit during a raid on the oil fields of… Ploiesti.

Hadleys_Harem_2

The captions tell the story of the bomber better than we could. It’s a story worth telling: no wonder the Turks saw fit to salvage the aircraft.

Hadleys_Harem_3

Hadleys_Harem_1

One other note from Istanbul:

Having ridden on the vintage tram which runs up and down Istiklal Cadessi, Son of Bucharest Life suggested something similar for Bucharest. A vintage tram running the length of Strada Lipscani perhaps? If you think that Bucharest doesn’t have any vintage trams, see this post from 2009.