Hot Bucharest Saturday morning in July. 11.30 Geo called and suggests I drive with him to Szeged in Hungary to catch the Szeged Festival returning through Serbia and a corner of Bulgaria. I hate Szeged I say but after five minutes’ reflection I decided to take two days off and agreed.
Geo is a true Romanian and therefore a metaphysician who knows that time and space do not exist. I asked as we set out whether we might get to Szeged in time for the play that evening and he said let’s see. In fact we were half way there at 10.30 after driving with only a couple of pauses. Geo is, to my indignation, even less practical than me. Both of us are children when it comes to travel but he is sure he is a natural leader and I decide that it would be cruel and destructive to weaken his self-belief. His fatherly authoritativeness while losing his way is something to admire. One should never feel an urge to punch him.
Geo enjoys ill health. Whose last words were: ‘I am dying of a hundred good symptoms’? Geo is in the exactly opposite case. He warned me that I might need to take drastic action if his back gave in completely. I don’t drive and wondered whether he expected me to grab the wheel from him in mid-spasm and thus save us from hurtling to our deaths.. My father liked to dramatise his life and especially his driving in this way, which is why some people refused to drive with him. One makes friends because of psychological similarities and needs which are not easy immediately to discern.
Sinaia. We take the air for the sake of Geo’s back problems. The town where I rarely stop is increasingly spruced up and has an Edwardian air around the Hotel Palace, a flavour of Arnold Bennett.
Another crisis. Geo’s ‘claxon’ (car hooter) has failed him. A Romanian without his klaxon is emasculated, a hermaphrodite and I feel for him but tease him too. No he says not laughing this is serious. I do not use my car horn without a reason but it is absolutely necessary to have a horn and dangerous to drive without one. Later to his great relief it returns to life. All Romanians are Mr. Toad.
Jams in the mountains. A long queue in Busteni. Mid-afternoon. Why are people leaving Bucharest lazily at that time? But it is because of a landslide that the traffic is slow. And these landslides Geo say are caused by illegal logging.
I thank God Romania still does not have motorways or even dual carriageways. The roads are far less exciting than when potholed and third world ten years ago but they still pass through charming one horse villages where rushing through you can taste the emptiness of childhood. The road that twists across the mountains to Sinaia and Brasov is still the artery that links Romania to Europe and civilisation.
I miss the horses and carts which were common five years ago, much more so twelve years ago or twenty. Made illegal by the health and safety fascists of the EU. The same abominable people have made it illegal to kill a pig in your back garden.
Fortified Saxon churches (fortified to protect the parish from Genghis Khan and the Tartars as well as the Turks) glimpsed from the car. I glimpsed them on my first visit in 1990 in a prelapsarian Communist countryside before Romanians fled to Spain and Italy to pick crops, when the Lutheran churches still held services each Sunday for their Saxon congregations. And I am very ashamed that I have not explored them very much now.
A comfortable newly opened hotel in Sebes for less than €40 and a workmanlike pizza on the terrace downstairs. Sebes in the morning for fifteen minutes is a delight. Though it is mid-July the rains have kept the grass as green as in May. The melancholy churchyard around the Gothic church of this little German town could almost be in England. I want to read much more about the history of Transylvania which has little to do with that of the Regat. South of the Carpathians the Reformation meant nothing nor the Enlightenment. Only the French Revolution permeated.
There is nothing as enjoyable as a driving holiday unless it is a train holiday. A cumulative diagonal biopsy of Romania.
Arad so briefly I can’t remember it. A flash of C18th buildings and the poignant late nineteenth century Hungarian stuff when Magyars were momentarily a great power.
Maria Radna not far from Arad with its Hungarian or is it Swabian Catholic monastery towering on steep steps disproportionately over the little village. No time to find out its history. Although two generations older and baroque not neo-classical something about it reminds me of Esztergom.
Is this one of those parts of Romania near the border, like Arad or Oradea, which should really have been left in Hungary one wonders. I can’t help asking myself if Transylvania and the Banat could have been independent countries after 1918 instead of being taken from one procrustean national state to another. The short-lived Republic of the Banat failed in 1918. The Swiss ideal does not seem to work outside Switzerland. It remains to be seen how a multi-racial Western Europe will work out.
The corridors of the monastery are lined with the usual plaques in German and Hungarian recording the gratitude of the devout for intercessions by the Blessed Virgin but also by many paintings on the same theme many movingly naive. A brunette adolescent girl beneath the wheels of a car. A patient in a hospital bed attended by doctor and nurse. The Blessed Virgin appearing at a bedside. How far from Orthodoxy but far too from the understated murmered politeness of Anglicanism.
We decide not to take the shortest route to Szeged, fearful of hold-ups with lorries and instead take one of Geo’s imaginative routes which I come to learn do not save time. The heat is merciless and this is somehow fun. We are in central Europe in its tropical summer. We visit a village to try to find Geo’s grandparents’ grave without success.
We cross finally the Hungarian border and suddenly the ennui is palpable. Roads like roads in a child’s toy town. Neat grass verges. No no no I think. This is not what I want.
Szeged 18 years after my last visit, once more in stuffy intense heat, once more en route to the Voivodina. Szeged was destroyed by a flood in 1879 and rebuilt at the apogee of Hungarian self-confidence. The heat is in the upper nineties and cities in landlocked countries seem intolerable. I disliked the place in 1992 and do so again at first this time but staying till evening and a breeze I reconsider and find I like it. It is 18 years older and so am I. Now that the sooty London of my boyhood has been cleaned up and so have almost all the other cities in Europe, Szeged looks as old as anywhere else. Szechenyi Ter is reminiscent of a square in Lisbon a century or more older. And Szeged has a number of really splendid ‘Eclectic’ i.e. Art Nouveau buildings, much more beautiful than the pompous monstrosities found elsewhere in Hungary from the same period. And the wide turbid Tisza lined with Sunday afternoon crowds searching for a breeze.
We had dinner with some nice but slightly yeastless people who want to organise more festivals and I see that Geo surrounded by Hungarians from Hungary, Serbia and Romania is vulnerable. People might make jokes about Romania or criticise his country and he is alone and defenceless. His car with its unreliable klaxon is far away but everyone skirts controversial subjects.
We rather liked the town and Geo tangoed on the embankment of the Tisza with an astrophysicist but it is good, Geo and I agree the next day, to shake off the dust of Szeged and the EU.
Across the border in the Serbian Banat, Subotica 18 years on is very charming far warmer than Szeged, though without Szeged’s architectural distinction. Southern, even though the population is mostly Hungarian. Balkan by osmosis. I remember an old woman selling newspapers from a kiosk her wrinkled brown face alongside startling graphic covers of hard porn magazines. To my surprise they still sell hard porn alongside the daily papers but the vulvas and labia are less in your face.
Novi Sad. Very short time but a really excellent beef sour soup. Several baroque churches. The fortress overhanging the Danube and below it an ignored old town built in the 18th century and now empty dusty boarded-up and dilapidated. Like Lipscani ten years ago except it is old.
Just time for one of the lovely monasteries of the Fruška Gora: the Novo Hopovo monastery. Do the Serbs think the Romanian painting too frivolous perhaps. These dozen or more monasteries were I told founded by monks fleeing Turkish rule when Serbia was captured or recaptured by the Turk. The monk who sold us our postcard and keyring was thirty one from Bosnia and too young to have served in the war.
The Novo Hopovo monastery has magnificent wall-paintings which are comparable with those in Romanian monasteries but miss I think the vigour and colourfulness of the Romanian ones. Do the Serbs think the Romanian painting too frivolous perhaps. I think of Slavic countries for some reason as metallic. I supposed this is meaningless but Geo says he agrees with me; the Slavs are cold.
Off the useful highway to Nis and the roads are bad and the villages delightful. The Timoc valley. We spoke to several Timoc Romanians who speak an archaic Romanian. One said to me that he is proud to be Romania but his children do not speak the language. The Serbian government wants to make Serbians of them and is succeeding. Why? Because of TV or schooling I wonder. He had never been to Bucharest but I forgot to ask if he had ever been to Romania.
Zaijacar on the Timoc close to the Bulgarian border enchants me. 18 years ago compared even to Hungary Serbia seemed Western and uninteresting. It still feels comfortable but one has the feeling of a weight off one shoulders being in an obscure town in an obscure part of an obscure country. Yugoslavia was not obscure but Serbia is. The statues to the heroes of the 1878 War. I am put in mind of the imaginary country in Nostromo or of a Graham Greene setting – perhaps the border town in Argentina in The Honorary Consul. The Communist hotel with its inevitable net curtains and solid breakfast. It reminds me of Tulcea at the mouth of the Danube.
Zaijacar is gratifyingly obscure but should not be because five miles away are the extensive ruins of the palace of the Emperor Galerius whose father was a Thracian shepherd and his mother a Dacian (ancestors of the Romanians). He became a soldier rose from the ranks and married Diocletian's daughter. The man at the ticket office displayed an encyclopaedic knowledge of his life and reign but did not mention his savage persecutions of Christians. The persecutions attributed to Diocletian seem to have been instigated by Galerius or at least took place while he was Caesar (junior Emperor). A bad Dacian clearly and not one in whom Romanians can take pride. I would like to know more about the ancient Roman class system or lack of one. How English I am.
Interesting also that he went to war with Persia. The clash of civilisations between Iran and the West predates both Islam and Christianity.
Then Bulgaria, an easy border surprisingly. We stop in a small place Kula which also has a well preserved Roman fort the Castra Martis. And a sleepy small town down at heel Balkan feel that Bulgarian country towns have and which I love very much. The calm of the place is extraordinary.
A dog barks and the caravan moves on. We come soon to the ferry to Calophat which has no schedule and comes and goes as it listeth. We wait 90 minutes in the heat clinging to the shade from the customs building. I buy fun-sized mars bars from the duty free shop to keep hunger at bay and to pass the time.
Calophat with its one large white shiny hotel. Geo surmises it was built by and for smugglers in the time of the Serbian embargo. Ten years ago Geo says Romania and Bulgaria started building the bridge which will replace the ferry and carry a motorway to Timisoara. A few pillions are visible on the Bulgarian side, on the Romanian side almost nothing. These things are a parable.