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An unexpected romance with Romania

Fireworks in the Romanian mountains.

An unexpected romance with Romania
Photo: Gareth Johnson
Peleș castle – Sinaia, Romania

After a fairly manic family Christmas in 2012, I barely had time to re-pack my bags before boarding a flight to Bucharest to celebrate New Year’s Eve with my friend Liviu.

While I’d met Liviu when he was living in London, but in 2012 he had moved back to his hometown of Dabuleni in Romania.

‘There’s nothing to do in Dabuleni…’ Liviu had declared, so we’d arranged to meet in Bucharest – a four hour bus ride for him and a short flight from London for me.

I was on a late flight from Heathrow, so Liviu met me at the airport and we took a taxi into town to the Radisson Blu hotel where we’d booked to stay our first night.

Liviu likes a sleep-in, so it was a slow start to the day but eventually we went for a walk around the old town of Bucharest – architecturally it’s an interesting combination between grand, imposing buildings and Communist-era constructions.

We walked past a stern looking woman having a loud conversation on her – Liviu looked a little perturbed as he translated what she was saying: ‘She said “did you kill her or just beat her?”‘ We walked quickly on.

Asking for directions in Romanian seems to be a long drawn out process.  You first have to say ‘don’t be upset’, then the person you are asking will normally reply ‘I won’t be upset’ or ‘go on and ask me’, then there’s a lot of discussion and hand-waving. Each time Liviu went off to ask for directions it seemed to take at least five minutes of animated conversation before he would come back and point: ‘It’s that way…’

I don’t imagine Bucharest would be a particularly easy city in which to be gay – I never felt threatened or in danger in any way, but public displays of affection would definitely have been out of place.

That night we caught the train to Busteni, a mountain resort town, where we would be spending a few days and celebrating the New Year. It was a two hour train ride through the dark of the early evening, so it was difficult to get any sense of the countryside that we were speeding through.

We checked into our hotel then walked into town for dinner at local restaurant Casa Ancutei – we ordered the traditional Romanian dish Tochitura Romaneasca (pork stew, served with polenta, egg, and cheese) and drank local wine Murfatlar Cabernet Sauvignon.  I had my eye on some spectacular desserts that were being dished out – Papanasi.

‘Is that a traditional Romanian dessert?’ I asked Liviu (as I would have had to try it on that basis).

‘No, it’s just donuts…’ he replied matter-of-factly. Disappointed, I settled for a coffee.

The brilliant sunshine of the winter’s morning revealed the most spectacular views from the balcony of our hotel room. The soaring Caraiman mountain dominated the skyline – at night the illuminated cross at its peak a beacon for the region.

Breakfast at the hotel each morning was surprisingly good – the friendly young guys running the kitchen were dishing up really good omelettes. Liviu opted for the traditional Romanian breakfast platter – bread, cheese, peppers, raw onion, pig fat, and two types of pork offal sausages. I won’t lie to you, not my choice for a delicious way to start the day, but Liviu was very happy.

This region is a popular holiday destination for Romanians – Busteni was busy with families and groups of friends making the most of the festive break. There is a small amount of skiing here, but it mainly seems to be more a place to just hang out and enjoy the snow and the mountains. We took the tele-cabin from Busteni to explore the peak of the Bucegi mountain – a good excuse for some mulled wine.

The following day was New Year’s Eve, we caught the train from Busteni to Sinaia – just nine minutes away by train. Sinaia is another mountain holiday town, slightly larger than Busteni. The highlight was the Peleș castle – built in the late 1800s, this is one of the most famous and beautiful Romanian castles.

Apparently it’s a Romanian custom to touch a lamb at New Year’s for good luck in the year ahead – this explained the numerous children wandering around the streets holding bewildered looking young lambs in their arms, imploring us to touch for just a small amount of money. It’s also good luck to wear red on New Year’s Eve – not normally a colour that’s in my wardrobe, fortunately I was able to share the pair of red socks that Liviu had packed for the occasion.

There were a range of New Year’s parties on offer, but we opted for a quiet dinner in Busteni and then drinks back in our hotel room, dancing to Romanian MTV which plays a good combination of international hits and local artists. Asif Avidan’s hit One Day was really popular, as well as Loredana with Apa (Liviu described her as the Romanian Madonna).

As we counted down to midnight the shooting rockets began to illuminate the sky – there’s something magical about watching fireworks with someone who adores you.

After a slow start to the first day of 2013, we caught the train to nearby Brasov (one hour away on a slow train). It’s a big city but has a pretty old town – predictably though, most things were closed for the holiday. It was such a cold day we alternated between short bursts of exploring and long stints in cafes warming ourselves with coffee and mulled wine.

Before we knew it our Romanian mini-break was over and we headed back to Bucharest to go our separate ways. Fortunately that wasn’t the end of the story and there were plenty more fireworks ahead.

Read more from Gareth Johnson

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