Two and a half hours flying time away from London lies a wild land inhabited by bear, wolf, lynx and Romani people who can trace their lineage back 1,000 years to the desert villages of Rajasthan. To me Romania felt a land more south Asian than European.
I am prepared to go out on a limb and say that Romania is the most exciting destination you can fly to in less than three hours from the UK. I will try to justify this claim but I stand by it. After leaving your car at Airparks and navigating the building site that is Luton Airport you will soon be ensconced in your shiny blue faux leather seat aboard a Wizz Air flight transporting you to one of ten airports scattered the length and breadth of Romania. Romania is a big country and this network of flights is a god-send as it means you can focus your travels in on particular areas of interest. History, culture, walking, wildlife, architecture, food, wine, music and more.
In the razor sharp, humorous, ‘Hold on, I have left my passport and wallet back at the hotel!’, company of Sunday Times Chief Travel Writer Chris Haslam, I explored northern Transylvania and the Maramures. With regards to Maramures I could follow in the footsteps of others before me and write of a ‘fairy tale’ landscape and ‘stepping back in time’, but I will struggle instead, in my own somewhat clumsy way, to be unique.
Maramures was quiet, peaceful, and spoke of adventure. Every day there was the unmistakeable song of a cuckoo, the rattle and bounce of a horse cart, the swish of the long grass. The forests and hills touched a nerve and had me figuratively and literally lacing up my running trainers to kick up some dust and see what I could find. Mile upon mile of land begs to be explored. Fields full of wild flowers, wild strawberries, and colourful butterflies are punctuated here and there by tall hayricks, and people scything by hand. Dogs in the villages are huge and fierce. Their chief job after all is to fend off the wolves and bears that lope down after dark looking to score an easy meal. Many of the houses in the Maramures are wooden but more and more are becoming concrete. Indeed a common greeting to friends and family is ‘may your house be brick’.
The modern world, cut off for so long by the topography and communism, is here. Older people spoke of children working in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. However, away from the larger towns and cities, out here in the countryside, one can still glimpse a life where money isn’t king and where time moves slowly. Tourism exists in the quiet corners of Romania, away from the coaches on the Dracula circuit, but is low key and feels exploratory. There’s more than a whiff of adventure but with a comfy bed and a good plate of food at the end of the day.
Romania is a country perfect for slow travel. When I go back I will pick a spot in the hills and stay for a week. Walk, read, chat with villagers, explore the wooden churches, sample the latest batch of fiery home distilled horinca. For me luxury travel is not a flashy hotel but a chance to sit in the sunshine and listen to the cuckoos.