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Trip Report Last Minute Roadtrip: Hungary and Romania

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Last April was our grossly oversold Istrian peninsula holiday in the rented house of the crazy woman, prompting our hasty return to snowy Vienna days early. (http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/we-should-have-gone-to-berlin-a-short-istria-trip-report.cfm) This year? Unexpected meetings for DH canceled our planned five days in Venice, so I assembled a slapdash road trip for me, DH, DD, and DDog (DS was in Dublin for a Model U.N. Conference) through Central Europe. As it turned out, our destinations of choice (and the driving distance between said points) were grossly undersold. This being a First World Problem, though, we crammed in as much sightseeing and camera-clicking as possible, and now Romania has joined our list of places worthy of several return visits.

Day One: Szentendre

Our last minute lodging scramble only got us as far as Szentendre for our first overnight. Szentendre is a small, picturesque village a little north of Budapest; and as we could see even during our brief visit, makes for a popular day trip. In summer the tour bus count is probably as high as the temperature, so we were pleased that the village was busy but not overcrowded during our stay.

The handful of shopping streets were filled with traditional items and the usual souvenier-y tchotchke. In the village square, we saw not the expected memorial to victims of the plague. Instead, a cross of gratitude that the plague did not strike Szentendre at all. Szentendre is home to nine churches, reflecting its history of religious diversity, but we were able to view only the interior of Blagovestenska Church, the Greek Orthodox church. Overall, a pleasant and easy drive, a pretty village, outstanding cuisine and comfortable guest house lodging rounded out the first day. A superb start to our slapdash road trip.

Day Two: Rural Romania and the Merry Cemetery of Sapanta

Time to gush about how enchanting we found Romania. If only the photos could capture the gush-worthiness we experienced in person…There was one exception to the enchantment, though. Romanian drivers. Living in Vienna, I have grown accustomed to the aggressive and impatient Viennese drivers I routinely encounter. Romanian drivers are Viennese drivers with an added speedy and recklessly dangerous flair. Even truck drivers do not adhere to road rules.

We had only a brief delay at the frontier crossing, too. The immigration officers studied on, and then took our passports to the office for further consideration. We suspected we were a curiosity--there probably haven't been many Americans crossing the small border in a foreign personal vehicle. Thankfully, unlike other vehicles we saw at the border, ours was not emptied and searched.

Rural Romania is indeed a journey back in time. How I wish I could have wandered slowly through a village, absorbing life with my eyes and my camera. Village babas in babushkas were out and about, working and gossiping. None of them ever seemed to be smiling, however…Brightly colored Romas were going about their day…many horse carts on the road, too.

Livestock along the road seemed ordinary, and keeping an eye out for roaming poultry while driving was critical. Poor DDog could not decide from which side of the car to bark! Nesting storks were a treat. Each village through which we passed had at least one or two nests, often with hatchlings peeking out.

In rural areas in particular, tradition holds for families to hang their kitchenware from the tree, not only to dry, but to display the wealth of the family. The more hanging kitchenware, the wealthier the family. I chuckled at the thought of my cookware hanging from our trees.

Romania's rural architecture was a visual feast. Silver-domed monasteries and churches were sprinkled across the landscape along with an occasional red-domed church for surprise; and private homes ran the gamut from large to small, and with silver-trimmed roofs to mosaic-tiled fronts to simple painted concrete structures, with many varieties in between.

In the tiny village of Sapanta, tucked up in the northeast corner of Romania, is the "Merry Cememtery," our destination for the second night. Begun in 1935 by Stan Patras, a local artist, the markers depict scenes from the deceased's life, an often an ironic poem of how the person died. The colors used on the markers also have meaning: the blue, known as "Sapanta Blue" represents hope, freedom, and the sky. Green is for life; yellow, fertility; red, passion; and black, for death. The colorful cemetery is in contrast to the usual gray, solemn Eastern cemeteries and was, surprisingly, a rather interesting site to investigate. Sometimes the paintings gave us enough insight into the deceased's life, but most of the time we had to resort to making up their life story.

Not every scene was delightful, though. Though DD and I much appreciated clean ladies public WCs in Romania, we weren't expecting the old world character of floor toilets. Men have it so easy.

Our "journey back in time" experience gained authenticity on our first evening in Romania. The guest house in Sapanta was updated with (mostly) modern amenities, and the meals prepared by our host were, in our opinion, stellar representations of Romanian cuisine). Just after dinner, however, the electricity shut down. Across the entire village. So much for my soak in the tub and some light reading to wind down the evening. At the late, late hour of 20:30 we were left with apologies and two small tea lights to guide us in our room. No Internet, no television, and insufficient hot water (the water pump was electrically-powered) for my desired soak, just barely enough water at all for us to brush our teeth.

Throughout the night the UPS device in the living room, that was theoretically powering the water pump, emitted warning beeps every 2 seconds. DDog was officially wigged out and slept on top of us, while DD had an entire double bed all to herself. Eventually DH and I fell asleep, to be awakened by the squeal of venting hot steam into the house when the boiler dried out (the pump ran out of auxiliary power) and the steam relief opened when the power was restored.

Ours wasn't the most restful nights' sleep, and we had a startling beginning to the following day, but the table filled with a traditional (and scrumptious) Romanian breakfast and the graciousness of our host restored our enthusiasm for the days' drive into Transylvania. It's all part of the adventure, right?

Day Three: Transylvania

Our route toward Transylvania passed through several of Maramures' old villages. Off the side roads, and not always easy to find, are gorgeous wooden churches. The Maramures region is approximately 80% woodlands, so wood is the favored means of artistic expression in these parts.

One of the largest religious sites is a monastery in the village of Barsana. A designated UNESCO site, the church and its outbuildings atop a hill does not disappoint those who find it. Built in the 16th century, it was home to Orthodox bishops of the region. That is, until folding into the Hapsburg Empire, when the Emperor forced the church to become Catholic. It was not until 1993 that the monastery and church returned to its Orthodox faith.

In the village of Desesti we found another wooden church that, by good fortune, happened to be open. Inside the church we were offered a brief description of the painted scenes (late 1700's) from the Old and New Testament by a knowledgeable young boy who seemed excited to practice his English. This was the only other church we discovered that was open to visit, and so having a "private guide" made the visit special.

Passing through the villages, one is also drawn to the remarkable wooden gates that mark the entrance to a family's home. Sadly, many modern homes have turned to decorative iron gates, and so it may not be long before this tradition is lost. Driving through this fairy-tale land made us appreciate even more how fortunate we are to have these opportunities.

Day Four: Regrets

Last-minute, slapdash planning with little time for research meant I sulked in Cluj-Napoca over the lack of time to absorb the achingly beautiful architecture around every corner, and could only window-gaze at the closed quaint second-hand stores and chic modern boutiques. Adding insult to injury is that we also missed so many dining opportunities in Transylvania's culinary and cultural capital. Our evening in Cluj was all too brief.

With a forecast of rain, rain, and more rain for our final intended destination in Hungary (Szeged), we canceled our lodging and rerouted toward home a day early. With nothing more in sight for kilometers, and tummies rumbling madly, we reluctantly pulled in for "lunch” at the Golden Arch Steakhouse in Oradea. Yep, Romanian McDonald's are as uninspiring as you might imagine. Later we learned that the city is a culturally and architecturally vibrant destination, and worthy of much more than a passing glance through the panelak-ed outskirts. Sigh.

The culinary portion of the trip was anything but a regret, thankfully. Delicious food was enjoyed at every destination, just not enough of it for me. In Szetendre I was delighted to find the Hungarian version of my beloved Shopska salad, the perfect accompaniment to Hungarian Goulasch soup. DD had Cevapcici, a traditionally Yugoslavian ground meat dish spiced with garlic and paprika; while DH opted for a simple but delicious grilled pork cutlet topped with fried potatoes. We went into the village for pizza that evening, and a hot pizza topped with chicken, garlic, jalapenos and sheep cheese enjoyed on the banks of the Danube was a fitting ending to the day.

At our guest house in Sapanta, we were treated to a first course of Ciorba de Perisoare, a traditional pork and rice meatball soup with a slightly sour taste. Delicious. The main course was Sarmale, Romanian stuffed cabbage served with the best polenta we've ever eaten. Sarmale are different from the Polish stuffed cabbage I grew up with and, dare I write, a bit tastier? Breakfast the following morning was amazing. Fresh yogurt unlike any we've eaten before; vegetables, a spread of roasted paprika and eggplant, and delicate cinnamon-filled rolled cookies, along with Romanian kolbasa and fresh sheep cheese.

So. Last year's spring holiday was an oversold disappointment, and this year's last-minute abbreviated road trip was an undersold whirlwind. Maybe next year's spring holiday will be the "Third time is the charm?"

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