Sunday 1 April 2012

An outpost of civilisation


For Romanians Bulgaria used to be just a place you had to go through to get to Greece or Turkey, although now it is a holiday destination in its own right, but for Bulgarians Romania is a place you don't have to go to at all.

This thought crossed my mind as we took the boat across the Danube at the point where the Danube ceases to be the border between Romania and Bulgaria and flows through Romania towards the Delta. Sailing from one Romanian bank to the other, we passed very close by Silistria in Bulgaria, gerrybuilt tower blocks rearing up with an ugliness which froze the heart, but not landing till we reached Ostrov in Romanian territory. Under Communism borders between friendly socialist countries were usually impermeable and crossing from Romania to Bulgaria always took an hour before both countries joined the EU in 2007, despite the fact that the customs officers had been bought by local smuggling rings. After the train had waited pointlessly 
for an hour at Ruse, the Bulgarian port on the Danube, and then slowly  started off young men would emerge to throw black sacks full of merchandise to confederates in the field beside the tracks. 

The border at Ostrov runs along the road leading away from the Danube and is a high wire fence that could not keep out any determined smuggler or putative illegal immigrant. But on the other side of the fence life la bloc (in the tower block) is as visibly Orwellian in  Bulgaria as in Romania

We were driving 100 miles east of Bucharest, first by the country's only, unfinished, motorway (one of the greatest charms of Romania is its lack of modern roads) then by smaller roads to see the impressive ruins of a tenth century Byzantine fortified town and trading post which marked the furthest limit of the Empire, Pacuiul lui Soare, which now forms a little island in the Danube

We crossed the Danube by car ferry, a barge which makes little sound and is always a slow poetic affair, and then drove to the village of Chiciu, where we persuaded a peasant, who made many  many complaints about the fact that the rain had raised the water level and the motor boat would not work, to row us through the drizzle across the river.

Pacuiul lui Soare was once a thriving town and customs post on the Danube trading with the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. The fortress is thought to have been built in 972-976. The town was burnt down in the eleventh century but continued to be inhabited until 1421 or 1422 when it was abandoned, presumably as a result of Ottoman incursions.  

Nine tenths of the town is below the Danube which has often changed its course over the centuries. Matei  who brought me fears that in fifteen years time the whole of the ruins will be underwater but for the time being the foundations of the harbour paradoxically are on dry land as are lower parts of one of the towers from the town walls. The great stone remnants rear up out of the grass and undergrowth and you feel like an explorer coming across an abandoned city in some adventure film. The less dramatic traces of a church also survive and what seems to have been the garrison building.

This was very interesting. Medieval remains are fairly few on the ground in Romania which was the Empire's frontier with the barbarians, but I liked the beauty and peacefulness of the place in the light rain as much as its historical significance. In summer it is very different place, a popular beach place where Romanians barbecue and frolic.  I do not much like beaches but I want to come back to this beach this summer and find the other Danube beaches. They and the beaches in the Danube Delta have an Amazonian wildness very different from the manicured Communist resorts built along the Black Sea coast in the Ceausescu period for workers' holidays.

Looking at archaeological sites is Mihai's favourite occupation in his spare time from his very demanding job as a commercial lawyer in an international firm and he deplores the lack of interest most people show in the past. I quoted Camus's remark "A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers" and Mihai agrees completely. 

We went back to the boatman who was patiently waiting. We had been as we promised only thirty minutes. We crossed back over the river and then bravely we tried to reach the nearby Dervent monastery dedicated to St. John the Baptist, a monastery built as recently as the 1920s but a centre for pilgrims. Alas the mud engulfed us. At my suggestion Mihai drove onto the farm land alongside the road and there we fell into a ditch. Leaving the car after twenty minutes, we had to trudge hopefully through the cold sleet to the monastery to ask for help.

Not driving like other forms of avoiding life has its advantages (I am an expert) and while Mihai found a tractor driver and stood in the cold for an hour before the tractor dragged his car to terra fima I sat in the church and watched the people. The church is not old or  interesting from an architectural point of view but the iconostasis is very fine and the whole church is good looking and has a very good feeling. (How I regret the Second Vatican Council placing altars in the centre of Catholic churches and disapproving of reredoses). 

Two handsome moustached monks in their early thirties, behatted and dressed in long black robes  sang plainchant for the ninety minutes I sat there, accompanied occasionally by two lay singers. For much of the time their audience was an ancient monk with a very long beard who sat in one of the chairs and me. Then a series of people, not particularly well-dressed or with particularly intelligent eyes, came in and kissed the icons and walked backwards crouched under the icons which is the Romanian fashion. It is a very great tragedy that the Reformation destroyed English folk religion. Folk religion and mysticism is the great strength of Romania, one of the main reasons why it is a more civilised country than England. 

Here in this part of the world always treated so very badly by landowners and foreign rulers and corrupt local dignitaries it is very easy to see why the Romanian Orthodox church is always voted the most trusted Romanian institution. There are not many to choose from and despite its sins of collaborating with the Communist regime and the Securitate and the occasional scandals about corruption it is rightly trusted. It is the heart as Marx said of a heartless world, a place of ancient tradition and ceremony in a country which has no others but most of all of course the oracle of God to a people who are profoundly mystical. If the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor there are many in Romania who are close to heaven.  

The sad thing is that Romania is doomed to economic success which will bring a decline in religious belief. One day, perhaps not far off, Romania will be modern, feminist, pluralistic and comparative religion will be taught to schoolchildren, along with human rights and relativism. Everything flows, as the Danube does. One day, homogeneous, out of date Romania where everyone crosses himself passing a church will be a memory just like the thriving entrepôt of Pacuiul lui Soare.

Dinner was served in the monastery at 6 and would have been fun but Mihai returned at twenty minutes to and we set off for Bucharest, just catching the hourly ferry across the Danube and reached Bucharest before 8 after almost nine hours out of town (we had had no lunch). 

I have for years meant to leave Bucharest at weekends and never did. Now I am in full cry after weekend excursions. It seems I was in a rut and falling into one literally has released me metaphorically.


  1. "The sad thing is that Romania is doomed to economic success..."
    Cheer up, Paul. That danger has never been too high in the first place. Nowadays is a remote and ever farther threat.

  2. Maybe it won't have 'economic success,; but woe betide a "Romania [that] will be modern, feminist, pluralistic and comparative religion will be taught to schoolchildren, along with human rights and relativism."

  3. Beautiful article Paul,I really enjoyed it so much that I've read it a few times.
    I wish I could read more articles like this in the Romanian newspapers, which to our shame is so full of trash talk and useless debates and themes.

    Best regards,

  4. Well, it seems like romanians (at least, most of them) don't find much to appreaciate anymore in regard to whatever is romanian... therefore, it's really great to be appreciated by an outsider.
    That just proves that we do have some things we should be proud of... - even if they are just some primitive 'leftovers' from another world, from another time...

    Thank you, Paul...

    Liviu Ghemis

  5. The last few paragraphs are quite sad, as Romania stumbles the new realities.


  6. An outsider's view is always welcomed, to learn something new about ourselves. "Folk religion and mysticism is the great strength of Romania, one of the main reasons why it is a more civilised country than England." Interesting and flattant point of view - Magical Romania.
    On the other hand, Romania doomed to economic success?... I don't know... Waiting for 20 years already, maybe after 20 more...

  7. Felicitari Paul, you should definitely dedicate more time to writing...
    Ovidiu Chiorean

  8. Thank you for this beautiful article.

    ”The sad thing is that Romania is doomed to economic success which will bring a decline in religious belief.” – I actually lean an attentive ear to what usually are more lucid views “from outside” by “non-Romanians”, so I agree with you there. We can actually see this everywhere around us in Romania: both at an individual level and in the society at large. Happily out of the communist regime and its shortages of all sorts, we have always longed for “economic success” – no matter how it is done or why – and indeed, many of us do not seem to have any other priority these days.

    However, as a mystical Romanian that I am, I would trust the Lord’s “economy”, as they call it and believe that that faith and mysticism will not be wiped off completely. The exit from communism also meant a return to faith and its practice.

    Faith does not reside in numbers and a few monks and attending laymen are not relevant. Jesus said: “Don’t be afraid, small flock” and those are among His fundamental words to any believer.

    I had written a little more but my message got lost as I had some trouble posting this, but never mind.


  9. Beautiful writting! Thank you for the tip :) I have crossed Danube literally tens of times at Calarasi but I never knew there is such a place just nearby. And it had to be a guest of my country to point me to it :) Thanks again! When and if you are going to have some more spare time it is worth travelling by car along the Danube to the north, towards Vadu Oii. The road is pretty bad :) but yopu will encounter some interesting places and ancient strongholds. Enjoy Romania as it is can be really wonderful sometimes! Mircea Podina

  10. No doubt, you are a historian! And a talented writer, too.
    Really enjoyed!

  11. Much enjoyed the blog - a real immersion in another place and time. Thank you Anne Lonsdale

  12. Bravo, Paul! Insightful piece - smooth flow - nicely written. I liked it.

  13. Paul " Theroux " Wood

    Stephen Stead

  14. Have you visited Silistra? Parents used to go there in the communist period to bring us sweets, Bulgarian were always better off than us at least regarding the food. I dont know if you felt, but in the entire Dobrogea region, there is a certain unique flavour of muslim tradition.

    And Dervent monastery, I know it, I have a book about it written a long time ago, but from pictures, the monks seem to be unchanged, as if they discovered the cure against ageing! This Friday, there is a big celebration there, a lot of people will go there and sleep near the healing crosses and St. Andrew's spring.

    Thank you once again, was great to read your thoughts and I think you should continue your weekend trips around Bucharest, there are many wonderful places there.


  15. Paauuuul,

    Informative piece. The sentences, with comma problems feel a lot like those muddy roads that you had to trudge that poor Mihai's car through that day by Bulgaria's blocs. Nice technique.

    Similarly, pained peoples trudge through generations of kissing icons and bribing uneducated government officials, all for ten minutes' worth of your amusement at knowing "ahh, the world isn't yet like England. How wonderful. Have we missed lunch?"

    Boil it down to verse, if you have a few minutes this weekend. After all, you seem to be trying to convey an emotional reaction, as much as relate a day-in-the-life of an intrepid Cambridge dude.



  16. Damn fine piece Keep it up Rupert

  17. I have always said you have one good book on Romania’s transition in you. This is shaping up to be something interesting. Paulius

  18. I always appreciate the Fermor-esque snippets of history you provide!

  19. "The sad thing is that Romania is doomed to economic success which will bring a decline in religious belief. One day, perhaps not far off, Romania will be modern, feminist, pluralistic and comparative religion will be taught to schoolchildren, along with human rights and relativism. Everything flows, as the Danube does. One day, homogeneous, out of date Romania where everyone crosses himself passing a church will be a memory just like the thriving entrepôt of Pacuiul lui Soare."

    You have a too high opinion of Britain! I have been there...

  20. It's another Anglocentric view of the other ..... Patronising and demeaning even though you want it to sound so romantic. Why don't you leave behind your comfort (of a world you seem to depose) and try to live in that romantic world of mysticism and backwordness which you so much appreciate? It's very hard to get rid of the colonial mind, isn't it?