Saturday, July 28, 2012

Wednesday, July 10 * Transylvanian Road Trip, day one

Lucyna at Hotel Melody
the view out the windshield
With the help of an energetic Hotel Mercury clerk, we found a local car rental company that would supply us with the perfect car for our 3-day, 2-night car trip.  Into the lobby came a young man named Daniel, and outside he had a shiny red Ford Fiesta with air conditioning and an automatic shift.  I told Lucyna that there was no way I could drive in Europe, with all these strange international signs that were not at all obvious in their meaning, bizarre modes of traffic control like round-abouts, and street light signals that permitted left turns but without a guarantee that oncoming traffic would remain in place.  Lucyna, on the other hand, didn’t know how to work an automatic.  Daniel was remarkably calm: he drove us to a big, empty parking lot, gave us a map of Transylvania, and stepped out and away into the sunshine. 
our car
For the next 20 minutes, I gave Lucyna directions on the complexity of not ever having to shift gears with the right hand while pressing down with the left foot and releasing gradually while simultaneously giving the car gas with the right foot.  Imagine how hard it would be to give that up and simply turn the car on, put it in drive, and press the gas pedal!  And when you want to slow down, think of how tricky it is to simply take your foot off the pedal and press the brake!  After practicing these demanding routines several dozen times, Lucyna was ready to face the Romanian road.  Looking back, I have to say that she handled it all quite well.  It is true that I was on guard to quickly intercede when her right hand began to hover over the automatic shift as she slowed down.  And she never did master the intricate maneuver of putting the shift into park before turning off the engine with the key.  But we got there and back safely, earned only one ticket (more about that later), and very few people yelled curses at us.
Romanian gas station store.
The fact that Lucyna’s fearfulness made us the slowest car on the road suited me just fine.  First, as all my children and acquaintances can attest, I am a nervous passenger and am known to frequently clutch the door handle and push down on an imaginary brake when objects appear alongside or a half mile in front of the car.  Second, it made it easier to view the lovely countryside and to find, read, translate, and interpret the road signs.  Third, Romanians drive like maniacs and it is best to convey to them that one will always allow them to dominate the road.   
After driving a bit, we stopped for gas and I learned another astonishing thing about my travel partner: she likes to drink Red Bull.  This is the sickly-sweet poisonous beverage that I will occasionally imbibe to keep awake on the freeways.  I drink it while sitting in the driver’s seat: just 1 teaspoon and I’m instantly revved and am good for the next 100 miles, when I take another sip.  Lucyna, however, brought the purchased bottle to the picnic table, poured it into a glass, and drank it all down while sitting there quite elegantly in her pretty blouse.  We’d get into the car, she’d gingerly put the automatic shift into drive, and we’d still be the slowest car on the road.  
We drove to Turda, a small town about an hour away that boasted an extraordinary salt mine.  The thick mineral deposit was first exploited by the Romans, and more recently it was upgraded to accommodate lots of tourists who want to get out of the heat -- it’s about 55 degrees underground, requiring sweaters and socks.  I was pleased that the salt mine was so wide and expansive under the ground that even people (like me) who dread being closed up in a tomb can breathe easily.  It was a huge hollowed out expanse shaped like a small-mouthed vase, seeming to be about 15 floors deep.  You can descend via stairs or an elevator, but we took the stairs so as not to wait in line.  The cavern was lit up by long, hanging florescent lights that, because of their shape, seemed to be windows to the outside world, but of course we would have been in total darkness without them.  Halfway down was a wide area with squash courts, ping pong tables, a ferris wheel, and the types of chairs and tables that could be used for picnics, party spreads, or Bar Mitzvahs. 
expert rower
underground salt-water lake
By then, though, we could see to the bottom, and we were determined to get to the lowest level with the salt water lake.  It was pretty awesome down there in the black water in a bright yellow row boat, the water divided into segments by the bridge-works and walkways.  I rowed, Lucyna sat and called out words of encouragement and praise (happy to be out of the driver's seat), assuring me that it was against the rules for us to switch places.  When we had our fill, we took the elevator up to the top.  We peeled off our extra clothes and socks and returned to our car. 

monastery near Torocko-Rimetea
 We headed toward a village that our tourist guy and Lonely Planet had recommended, a little Hungarian village with two names (apparently quite common in this ethnically-divided region), Torocko and Rimetea.  On the way there was a monastery so beautifully constructed and nestled into the greenery that I felt like moving in.  Too bad that some of the portraits were of men who, like many Christian saints, did heinous things to Jews. 

Torocko/Rimetea faces gorgeous bluffs and beautiful sloping fields upon which sheep graze and crops are grown. The big event occurring in the middle of a clearing in the town was laundry. Water poured out of a pipe into a huge basin in which the village women were scrubbing clothes.  They'd scoop out the liquid soap, throw it onto the clothing, and attack the cloth with a scrub brush.  It didn't really make sense to me, because alongside the women were their little children who were, of course, getting all their clothes dirty as they played in the dust and water.  We walked through the streets and looked into the tourist shops, and I bought a necklace made in Hungary.   
haystacks alongside the road
 By then it was mid-afternoon, and we planned to find lodging just outside the big town called Sibiu.  We were looking for what Israelis call a pen-see-own, what Romanians call a pensiunea, and what Americans call a Bed & Breakfast.  We didn't make very good time, but we didn't care. Lucyna drove slowly – that is, at the posted speed limit or just under – and cars and trucks would nose up to us until they finally passed in what always seemed to me to be dangerous maneuvers.  It would be played out in front of us, too: on a two-lane highway, there facing us up ahead in our lane would be a car passing and getting out of our lane just seconds before our approach.  The highway signs were confusing, of course, and we drove through village after village (the highway goes through the villages) without seeing possibilities.  The sounds of the traffic outside Hotel Melody still fresh in our memories, we were determined to get far enough away from the highway so we could have a quiet night’s sleep.  
Transylvanian farm and village
Saliste stream
I finally spied a village way about 2 miles off the highway at the base of the hills, and I convinced Lucyna that we'd find our pensiunea there.  It was a lovely village called Saliste that appeared to have been designed for the tourist trade.  According to the big village map displayed in the town center, it had 5 or 6 pensiuneas and some were even set alongside the little stream running through the village.  But it took us about a half hour to actually find one of them.  The streets were confusing and didn't seem to match the map.  A stern-faced woman was standing in the yard of a building labeled “pensiunea” scowled at us and said “full.”  Then she asked us how many days we wanted, so I guess the place wasn't really that full.  Did she know of other pensiuneas, we asked?  No, she said, which was an absurd answer considering that the village economy seemed to be based on it.  We persisted, and she suggested that we try (and here she sneered) Domnescu, which was down the road.  This was the place we had been seeking anyway.  We managed to find it, parked, and after being shown the rooms we agreed. 
 The Domnescu pensiunea consisted of several structures.  There was the main house with the guest rooms and a huge dining room, attached bar, and a laundry area with a modern washing machine and drier.  It opened out the back into a yard with several tables and chairs under the trees, with a parking area next to a coop with a dozen pigeons and doves.  The yard backed up into a hill, and trees and vines shaded the patio.  The front opened to a garden with tomato and cucumber plants, and next to that was a newly built house where the family owners lived and prepared the food.  There were at least 10 other hotel guests.  I had the first floor room, with a window that faced the garden, and Lucyna had a room on the second floor.  No air conditioner, but it looked pretty nice.  

Jody at Domnescu
Mrs. Domnescu was the only one who knew English, but you only need one, and her husband prepared us a nice hot meal.  They were delighted that I eagerly requested mamaliga, the national staple that is corn meal mush.  Lucyna told me that Poles use the term mamaliga disparagingly as a synonym for “mess.”  Nevertheless, she was a good sport about it, having declared that she was once again a vegetarian, and we ate it along with sour cream and cheese and vegetables from the garden: tomatoes, cucumbers, and pepper with a light vinegar dressing that was delicious.  To Lucyna’s delight, Mrs. Domnescu gave us little glasses of vodka.  I managed to drink a bit more than the night before.  I fell asleep promptly at 10 and awoke at 7.  Not so my travel partner.  Most comfortable with the frigid climate of Bialystok and probably haunted by the terrors of the road, she reported the next morning that she had been too warm and had heard the highway.  There’s always Red Bull!  We had a nice breakfast and set off on another day’s adventures. 

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