Friday, 16 May 2014

The Missing Link: Part 3.6: Suceava to Viseu de Sus

world-map viseu


This week’s offering is all about an amazing train journey through the mountains which is actually rather apt since my activity focus for the past few weeks has been building a mountain range on my son’s model railway. The layout is called Caertomos, (Welsh for “The fort of Thomas”; he’s called Thomas and its got a castle), and it was inspired by my journeyings along the Heart of Wales Line which can be read about here in The Sacred Heart of Wales.

Today’s piece though, is not Welsh but Romanian, through the Carpathians not the Cambrians, to one of the most famous little steam trains in Europe, the Mocanita…

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue



1.1: Konotop

1.2: Chernobyl and Pripyat

1.3: Kiev

1.4: Kiev to Odessa

1.5: Odessa

1.6: Bolgrad

Moldova and Transdniestra

2.1: Bolgrad to Chisinau

2.2: Chisinau (I)

2.3: Tiraspol and Bender

2.4: Chisinau (II)


3.1: Iasi (I)

3.2: Iasi (II)

3.3: Suceava

3.4: The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

3.5: Targu Neamt, Agapia and Sihla

3.6: Suceava to Viseu de Sus

3.7: The Mocanita and Viseu de Sus

3.8: Viseu de Sus to Bucharest

3.9: Bucharest (I)

3.10: Bucharest (II)

My Flickr Album of this trip


Journey: Suceava to Vişeu de Sus

My train out of Suceava’s grand railway station left at twenty minutes past one. For the first twenty miles or so it followed the same route that I had taken to Gura Humorului two days before and I busied myself writing letters and reading. Sometime after Gura Humorului, as we begun to climb into the Carpathians, the young lady sat opposite me asked if I was writing a book. Her name was Oana Nicoleta and she was a Masters student in the university at Cluj Napoca travelling back to her studies after some time with her family in Bucovina. I fell into conversation with her, telling her where I’d been and of my impressions of her country so far. She asked me what I thought of Romania which led me to saying what a difficult question that was to answer since I had not visited a Romania but instead several Romanias – Transylvania, Moldavia and Bucharest – all of which seemed to bear little resemblance to one another. She agreed that Transylvania in particular was markedly different to the rest of the country due to the German and Hungarian influence.

“But different again,” I said, “is the Republic of Moldova which I’d expected to be quite similar to Romanian Moldavia yet the two seem world’s apart. However, I’ve seen many signs declaring that ‘BASARABIA e ROMÂNIA!’ so it seems that there is some desire at least for the two countries to unite.”

“Twenty years ago there was much talk about it but these days, no, it’s not going to happen, especially since we joined the EU. The ‘Basarabia e România!’ movement has little popular support.”

Our conversation then turned to other matters. Oana was a big film lover so I asked her if she had seen ‘California Dreamin’’ but surprisingly, she hadn’t. Her favourites were the classic tragic love stories – ‘A Hundred Years of Solitude’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Onegin’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Wuthering Heights’ and, of course, ‘Romeo and Juliet’. She was talking to the right guy and I waxed lyrical over all these and more, particularly the Zefferelli version of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy and the stunning performance of Olivia Hussey as Juliet.

Finally, I asked her about her name which I thought sounded rather unusual, (although it probably isn’t, being a Romanian form of ‘Joanne’), and she laughed. “Actually my mother wanted to call me ‘Mihaila’ but my grandmother didn’t agree. Traditionally in Romania, a daughter should be named after, or at least share the same first letter as, their grandmother. She was Olivia but my mother didn’t like that so I ended up as Oana.

Whilst we were talking the scenery outside changed from beautiful to spectacular. Our train was crossing the Carpathians now and we hurtled down pristine alpine valleys with pine-clad slopes and craggy peaks beyond. The colours were startling, deep blues and greens, more like the hues of one of those new-fangled technicolour films of the sixties than reality. We could have been in Switzerland, except that there I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of being able to lean out of the window and breath in the fresh mountain air.

ML131 Crossing the Carpathians

At Salva I bade goodbye to Oana and changed trains, alighting from the swish electric express and boarding an aged, diesel-hauled local stopper service. The atmosphere inside was as different as the outside: I now shared a compartment not with an acute Masters student but instead a fat jolly peasant woman who was bringing her unsold goods back home from market.

The valley along which we rumbled at 19th century speeds started off gentle but then became more dramatic. However, unlike the trip that I had just taken across the Carpathians, there was a very different ambience here. There, although beautiful and sparsely-populated, one was always aware that we were on a major communication route, a lifeline across the mountains from one developed region to another. Here though, one was conscious of really entering the sticks, the back of beyond. But that was only natural; after all, I was now in the Maramureş:

‘The Maramureş is a land cut off by mountains to the south and, since 1945, by the border with what was then the Soviet Union to the north. Until 1920 eighty per cent of its surface was covered in forest. Still today there is something distinctly sylvan about the Maramureşeni, especially when one sees them huddled together in their wooden churches, praying to God to help them eke out a living, with their mostly wooden tools, from their small patches of ground encircled by the echoing forest.

In valleys surrounded by forests and mountains, with no towns of any size nearby, remote and poorly connected to the outside world, the Maramureş remained one of the most unaltered regions of Europe. So well preserved had been their traditional way of life that, in more recent times, a selection of ethnologists and philologists from different parts of the world had travelled over the passes to study the lives, customs and language of these unique and isolated people… [and as a result]... the peasants of the Maramureş appeared to believe the entire world outside to be made up of philologists.’[1]

That quote comes from William Blacker’s ‘The Enchanted Way’, the wonderful book that inspired me to head up to the Maramureş, and since this was my first views of the region, it is perhaps apt to read of Blacker’s:

‘Surviving on dry biscuits I headed east again, along bumpy roads. After two hours, on entering a forest of tall beeches, their branches topped with snow like ermine on an empress's robes, the road began to climb. I drove upwards for half an hour and then over a mountain pass into an area marked on my rough map as 'Maramureş'. Slowly I descended through misty woods, not knowing what I would find, along a road which became rougher and rougher.

As the gradient levelled out, following a frozen stream whose waterfalls had turned into motionless cascades of ice, a few wooden houses began to appear. I proceeded cautiously along the snow- and ice-covered road, astonished at what I saw. East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, even the parts of Romania I had just travelled through: none of them were anything like this. Only here had I found the sort of Eastern Europe which I had imagined from reading ‘Old Peter's Russian Tales’ when I was young; the Eastern Europe of wooden peasant cottages on the edge of forests inhabited by wolves and bears, of snow and sledges and sheepskin coats, and of country people in embroidered smocks and headscarves. I thought I had been born too late to see anything like the peasant life about which Tolstoy and Hardy had written, but I was wrong. Here there was a remnant of an old, almost medieval world, cut off by the mountains and forest I had just crossed, and I had stumbled upon it quite by accident.’[2]

Even with such firm endorsements from William Blacker, I have to say that the Maramureş came as a pleasant surprise to me. It is a region of narrow valleys with settlements nestling on their floors, hemmed in by wooded slopes. Those settlements were clustered around their churches but unlike in the rest of Romania, many of these were Roman Catholic, their tall spires thrusting confidently heavenwards, in stark contrast to the squat domes of the Orthodox temples. It was an almost Mitteleuropean scene, Slovakian or Polish, but only almost. Central Europe is a wealthy region, even if that wealth has been partially obscured by five decades of communism. The Maramureş was not and never had been a place of great wealth. As Blacker intimated, it was still mediaeval; peasants toiled in fields of haystacks, donkeys plodded along the roads pulling carts and set next to them our lumbering, aged train was transformed into an ultra-modern monster providing the lifeblood that links these forgotten veins of Europe to the continents more modern arteries.

ML132 The Maramureş

We stopped at a station called Fiad. I looked out of the window and saw no settlement for it to serve. The only traces of humanity were some concrete slabs which served as a platform and a tiny station office from which the national flag flew. Unlike at all the other stations, this stop lasted longer than a momentary halt: the entire trainload of people alighted and started lighting up cigarettes or chatting. I descended from my carriage too and joined them, lighting up a Moldovan cigarette of my own which I had bought for such a time, then wandering up and down the platform passing my time people-watching and admiring the mighty, throbbing diesel locomotive which was carrying us into Europe’s darkest region. As we waited – and I was wondering why we were waiting - a story formed itself in my mind. As I watched the locals – aged peasants, a tired-looking guard, fashion-conscious youngsters, Romanians, Gypsies and other unidentifiable races – I began to think about how all our lives are inter-connected even though, superficially, a train stopping mysteriously in the middle of nowhere, seems to cast a group of totally separate islands together temporarily in a tiny sea. By the time the train travelling in the opposite direction, (the reason for the wait), arrived, my short story ‘Interval’ was largely worked out in my mind.

ML133 Fiad: the inspiration for ‘Interval’

Moving on deeper into the Maramureş and the scenery only got better, both natural and human. At Săcel, a town kept alive by logging judging from the goods yard loaded high with timber next to its railway station, I saw my first traditional Maramureşeni wooden church. These structures, unique to the region, have tall, pencil-thin spires, large sloping roofs and wooden walls. They are beautiful and, as Blacker suggested, worthy of inclusion in any of Old Peter's Russian Tales, (or to be more culturally and geographically accurate, any Brothers’ Grimm Fairy Tale).

ML134 Săcel with its wooden church

I alighted at Vişeu de Jos (Lower Vişeu) since the branch line up to my final destination, Vişeu de Sus (Upper Vişeu) ceased operating a few years ago, but outside the station I encountered a problem. I’d expected, since this was one of the more major stops on the line, there to to be at least one taxi waiting outside for customers, but the place was deserted and there wasn’t even a café to ask in. What to do? I was not alone for a couple of German rail enthusiasts had also alighted there – their purpose the same as mine – but they were of little use since their English was pretty much as good as their Romanian which, in short, meant that we were screwed.

But into such situations, a knight in shining armour can sometimes ride and ours came in the shape of the director of the local children’s home who had come to the station to pick up one of his charges. He offered us a trip into town and declined any payment, depositing me right outside the door of the Hotel Brad, my home for the night.

Next part: The Mocanita and Viseu de Sus

My Flickr Album of this trip

[1] The Enchanted Way, p.32-3

[2] The Enchanted Way, p.9

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