Two days in Bucharest, then we took a very early train to Timisoara, my home city, the place where I had spent almost 20 years of my life. How I loved it and thought I would never, but never move away! Still, I first decided to move to Bucharest, after my first big step out of my planned life story, out of my comfort zone – spending one year as an Au Pair in the US, an experience which to this day seems somehow surreal to me. Then it was the UK, thousands of kilometres away and a life experience which I never really thought I would have, even considering my unrealistic dreams of being a volunteer working with children in Africa (I could never have afforded it, nor could I today, still).
Back in Romania the best option for traveling, other than to rent a car (which costs just as much as it would here, in the UK), is the train. Flights are too expensive. By train you also get to actually see the country, although it is a long journey from Bucharest to Timisoara, about 600 km in 8 hours. I would not really recommend a coach, as they take almost the same time and you don’t get much more comfort sitting on the same narrow chair. On the train, as not all the seats are taken, you can stretch your feet, put them up on the one in front of you or next to you, and even take a good nap if you are able to. Luckily I can always sleep in trains, and sometimes in the most difficult postures, like crouching on one seat with my head on the back or arm rest. I probably look very silly, but don’t quite care about it.
On this travel I did take advantage of the rain and slept for a good 3 hours. Unbelievable, but true: Romania turned for one summer into England and the other way around, at least weather wise. We had some very rainy days there, and although I am not very up to date with the news, according to Facebook it seems the rain recently caused some floods all over the country, including in the area where my parents live (close by, they are on higher ground) and in Cluj, where my partner is from.
A very rainy morning, but no loss, passing through the fields in the South, not much to see, the landscape gets exciting as you approach Drobeta, the city situated on the Danube river, on the Eastern end of the defile where it pierces the Carpathian mountains. While we were getting closer to this city, I woke up. I must have my inner clock set to wake me at about this point of the journey. Seeing the big river that defines Central Europe, its waters mirroring the greatness of the kaiserlich und koninglich power of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, its flow mirrored in Strauss’ waltzes, is always a must. And not for the history it has seen, but for the natural beauty. In the area called Cazane all you can see is the mountains slopes covered by dense forest, the slightly wavy waters of the river, the viaducts built for the railway and roads, the Portile de Fier (Iron Gates) Dam, and the town of Orsova spread up the hill at the end of the defile. In its narrowest place, this crossing dug by water through the mountains measures 230 m in width (about 250 yards).
Our five days in Timisoara have been thoroughly planned, but the weather and some other factors made us change part of these plans. We haven’t managed to see my friend Liana Toma and her family, this amazing lady who is a house mum, a poet and an independent chef at the same time, and who keeps the loveliest of the loveliest cooking blog. It is in Romanian, but you can activate a translation function and trust me, it’s worth it. Once you have went on translation mode, however, your only worry would be keeping things in control and not diving completely into the culinary heaven it inspires.
Those of you who tasted my spinach and salmon roll, the biscuits I served on my good bye day at work with Allied Care in New Milton, or the almond rolled cookies I served on our Secret Santa day last year would be pleased to know the recipes are now available. This way, I’m trying to make up for my sins of forever postponing sharing them with you. Shame on me.
What we managed to do is visit my cousin’s family in a typical village for Banat region, with big gardens and large backyards with lots of poultry and other such animals which don’t come as pets, but for consumption. On Sunday we got in my brother’s car and went on to have a barbecue afternoon, which lasted for some good 5 hours.
I won’t bore you with all the family stories, although Anka, this cousin of mine, is quite amazing, a recent mum to two adopted brothers and a passionate biker, only about a week after we left she completed the Transalpine trip in Romania, riding her bike on the serpentines high in the mountains of Fagaras. But what I will say is that visiting for the first time their old house in the countryside (the family used to live in the city until the grandparents passed away) I found a piece of my childhood there.
The scent of a typical traditional house in Banat was the sweet perfume of the day. If I were to describe it, I would say it’s the combined whiff of old wooden floors and furniture, of local dish
es and pork products smoked in the household, of homemade jams and compotes and drinks, and the gentle scent coming from the gardens and fields. It’s the flavour of calcimine inside accompanying the coolness of the walls in the summer and the engulfing warmth in the winter days. It’s the smell of hay, of straw, of vines and of vegetables. The smell of new cement and of old bricks.
It’s probably how I can best describe my home region at this time.
And this brings something else into mind. One lazy afternoon I took my foster brothers out in the back yard to lay down in the sun and play cards while catching a tan. They lasted for a bit out there with me, but I guess after half an hour they got bored and left me to it. As I was laying there in the blazing light, sweat all over me like a second, liquid skin, I could hear and see the world from the height of the grass blades. Some bees were buzzing around the tiny wild flowers, some pigeons were lazily cooing, chicken were walking around in their yard faintly cackling of boredom as well, sweet nothing to do on a summer afternoon in the Romanian countryside. The sun rays were sweeping over the roof of the house, framed by the trees’ green, the whole world seemed to purr softly, half asleep, and still so vibrant, pulsating alive through its every pore.
After all the delights of the countryside, which I deeply cherish, as being raised there, we did take two trips to Timisoara. This time I was slightly disappointed with the city I hold so dear. First, the most beautiful square in the city, Piata Unirii (Union Square) is dead for this summer. They have closed it all, replacing the old sewage and plumbing systems, which is a positive thing. However, the way they have done it, killing completely for the season a place which used to be the heart of the whole historical centre, full of restaurant and terraces, buzzing every evening with the sounds of the people sitting around with a drink or some sweet treat to enjoy, was probably not the best idea. It almost makes you wonder if there is any economic personal interest to bankrupt some local businesses.
Our old pizzeria, Cora, located on one of the streets coming from Piata Unirii, by the most beautiful and still functional synagogue in the city, is still there, still pretty and they still make great food. It’s a shame, however, that while in Timisoara, if one wanted to find a fine restaurant with local cuisine they might face an uncomfortable challenge. Who goes to Timisoara to have pizza and pasta?
There are Casa Bunicii restaurants (Nana’s House), easy to find on Tripadvisor. On our first evening in the city we went to one and enjoyed a meal on the terrace, late at night. Still, I was slightly disappointed: while my pork chop and sauce were tasty, it came cold. I was so hungry I didn’t send it back. My partner’s skewers like in Bucovina, set on fire under our own eyes, for a deep pleasant chargrilled flavour, were just as good as the ones I tasted in the winter. The sour cherry liquor hit the spot as a dessert drink.
Then we took the kids to the city, a trip which has become tradition. Going around in the Children’s Park, a place I used to visit a lot in my own childhood, well decorated and arranged, with lots of small rides, swings and slides and fancy objects, was very enjoyable. For years the park had been partly abandoned, in the way that there was no new investment, but recently they have renovated it all.
After the kids had a good play and climb and jump around, we went to have lunch just across the big Intercontinental Hotel, the first building with automatic sliding doors in the 70s, if I’m not mistaking (a story I know from my father). The restaurant Curtea Berarilor (Beer Brewer’s Court) had been recommended to us, and as we entered the inner yard it looked really nice. We had a sit and waited forever to be served, so we started to play a word game with the kids as we were all starving and bored to death. When the food came… my chicken wings were the blandest thing I have ever eaten, the soured cream and garlic sauce had no garlic in it. Not nice at all. We tried not to make a big thing out of it as it was a day for the kids to enjoy out in the city. The dessert we had at Cofetaria Trandafirul (The Rose Cake Shop), another place I used to go regularly to since a child, made up for the bad experience with the restaurant.
It could have been better. We could have enjoyed Timisoara more, if only Piata Unirii and the streets around it didn’t look like a war landscape, if only the restaurants were better, if only. But then my old city can still make it up to us next time when we go to visit.
I left Banat with the feeling that it is all still there, just as I knew it, content that everybody at home is doing well, my grandmothers are still in good health, and everything is as I used to know. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to have more to discover for me, all as expected, nothing fresh and unexpected.
I still love my home region and would recommend people to visit it. When they are going to finish with renovating the streets and the square, it will be much better. As for restaurants, Tripadvisor should help. And if you haven’t been so used to how everything is around there, the risk of being bored dissipates as well. It’s a region full of history, and an inquisitive eye and mind would most certainly be happy to explore it.
(Foto 1: made by me. Fotos 2 and 3: Attila Vigh)