EN VOYAGE – East Is East, Or Is it?

27 Feb 2002

Our road trip – not so ‘slow’ since we were always in rush and only got a few hours of sleep a night – took us from Slovenia to Transylvania. Along the way we got a glimpse of rather than visited cities and museums, we met farmers and shepherds, we ate the few typical dishes that we came across, and slept in hotels that were either shabby or relatively luxurious. It all depended on luck, the necessities of the day and the exchange rate of the town we happened to be in. It was a trip to the east in search of The East. You won’t find it even if you try in Ljubljana or Zagreb, and not even in Budapest – Byzantium hidden beneath a veneer more Austrian than Magyar and a favorite luxury brothel for European businessmen, with Italians at the forefront. First you have to cross the Hungarian border to discover the cities and towns and streets and people yet to be corrupted by western fashions, if, that is, you close an eye to the occasional McDonald’s, which hasn’t spared even the medieval and gothic-style towns clinging to the slopes of the Carpathian mountains of Rumania. What follows is a journal of the trip that Corinna and I set out on without planning anything before we left – except for a compulsory stop over in Croatia to visit her relatives.

Ljubljana and Slovenia
Ljubljana: the fact that this extremely rich, small area of the former Yugoslavia can still be considered different from any other European Hapsburg capital is mystifying for anyone who has actually visited it. Except for the streets of Belgrade – at times reeking of the little gas left for cars following the embargo – and the pock-marked walls of Sarajevo and Mostar, the Yugoslavia that was once Tito’s has quickly forgotten the years of the Regime and even the violent rage of the Bosnian and Kosovar massacres. Wandering through Ljubljana – and Zagreb too, for that matter – is not unlike a stroll through the streets of Vienna, prices included. Tonight the streets are bustling and there’s a great deal of flag waving: Jewish youngsters are singing in the streets to celebrate the Slovenian national soccer team’s first ever qualification to the World Cup Finals in Japan and Korea. We are staying in an unpretentious hotel (Hotel Park, tel. 0386-1-4331306) that costs about 55 euros for a double room, and we eat fairly well, among candles, wrought iron lamps and Indian furnishings at Gostlina As Stara Ljubljana (Copova Ulica, tel. 0386-1-4258822): chicken and roast beef garnished with lots of vegetables and accompanied by a bottle of Movia Cabernet Sauvignon ’96, a large Slovenian producer.

Samobor, Zagreb and Croatia
Samobor is a small border town where Croatians welcome travelers arriving from Slovenia. We arrive at lunch time and we hit lucky straightaway. At Pri Staroj Vuri (Giznik, 2) we order sruklova juha, cheese soup with strukli, dumplings, and hrvatska pisanica, steak with a spicy sauce, and we learn to say ‘bon appetit’, dobar tek. After a few hours of walking around and sampling the local specialty kremsnite, a cream cake, at U Prolazu, we move on and arrive in the suburbs of Zagreb. We get lost in the winding streets until we decide to buy a map to escape this concrete maze. We can now take advantage of the only two addresses that we brought from home: one is for Corinna’s relatives, who we are to visit the day after, the other is for Evistas (Senoina 28, near the train station), an agency affiliated with hundreds of elderly ladies who rent their converted living rooms as bedrooms to young and not-so-young travelers from all over the world. The grandmotherly woman who we are sent to, Dragica Srecvovic, lives in the outskirts. In contrast to the harsh, biting wind that blows through the dark, cement-lined streets, Dragica’s room is warmed by red tones and a radiator straight out the former regime. We’ll be here for a few days, time enough for this elderly lady to tell us a lot about herself, including the stories of her travels with the Zagreb Choir that she sings with. Along with a wealth of words in Italian, Croatian and English, she produces a repertoire of family snapshots; at first, we see the usual photos of grandchildren and so on, but the climax comes with a photo of Dragica herself, cut out from a magazine.

Now on to Zagreb: what stands out the most on this Saturday morning in November is the large number of people strolling through the streets. Lines everywhere: in the bars, in the long string of pubs on Tkalcica Street from midday on, in front of the cash machines and, as a logical consequence, in the stores selling clothing by the best Italian designers. It’s a safe bet that it won’t be long before this country enters the orbit of the euro. There’s already a high demand for fashion, television and motors with a certain number of cylinders. People knock into one another, bouncing from one padded jacket to another, all under the twin spires of the Katedrala Marijina Uznesenja (which houses a triptych by Albrecht Dürer) that dominates the Trg Jelacica, the city center. We walk through the Dolac, Zagreb’s picturesque fruit and vegetable market, we visit a few art galleries and we buy typical Croatian tablecloths in white, red and blue.

At night we dine at Corinna’s relatives’ house and Tomislav, the head of the family, amazes me. For nearly two hours while we converse with his children (our contemporaries) and his grandchildren in English, he remains quiet and scrutinizing, having them translate some remark now and then. Then, at the end of dinner, with a few beers down the hatch, he rattles off his first words in perfect Italian and doesn’t stop talking in our language.

Transylvanian countryside, carriages and towns
From Zagreb we pass through Serbia about 100 km to the north of Belgrade and we finally reach Transylvania, the land that proves itself to be the most picturesque of all, the least spoilt by and unmarred by fashions on this side of the border. The land which was home to Vlad Dracul II, a historical Rumanian character whose name Bram Stoker stole for his vampire, is less hazy and dark than we expected. The Carpathian mountains are studded with colorful villages in a winter landscape of russet forests and yellow or snow-capped hills. It all takes our breath away. The landscape is populated by hitchhikers, carriages overflowing with hay hauled by panting black or brown horses, shepherds in the fields with their flocks and the pot-bellied towers of the Orthodox churches that pop up between the sloping and dizzying roofs of houses painted green, yellow, red and blue. And then there are the sporadic road workers pouring asphalt and working well after dark, broken-down cars with men fiddling under the open hoods – one every ten kilometers or so – and the trucks both small and large racing on roads with no dividing lines or illumination or guard rails – nothing. All they’ve got is asphalt, which isn’t to be sneezed at in a country that until recently didn’t even have that. To appreciate the beauty and authenticity of Transylvania, you have to be prepared to risk the dangers of the treacherous roads.

When we leave the paved main road to venture onto the muddy roads of the small towns, we come upon scenes from another era: people come out of their cabins, anything but shy, telling us lots of things in a language completely unknown to us (so much for Latin helping!), but we happily stay to listen anyway.

The first true city that we come across is Alba Julia, the capital (168-170) of Dacia Apulensis and the home to the majority of Transylvanians. An imposing hotel (Hotel Transilvania, platel Ulio Mantu 22, tel. 01-545-1995) that smells of Regime from a mile away, didn’t have any competitors at ten at night: it had to be good enough. We later discover that it is, nonetheless, the best hotel in town at 850,000 Lei a night (about 40 euros), but beyond the colossal Soviet-style hall, we find a building that hasn’t been touched since the time of Ceausescu. The halls, bedrooms, bathrooms, floors and carpets are all from the Eighties and the building hasn’t seen a plasterer or plumber in quite some time. By dint of invoking the fairy-tale wolf, The East has suddenly arrived with its cloak of cracks, water stains and leaking pipes: even with the constant sound of ‘plop…plop’, we are able to sleep as it’s snowing and there isn’t a soul on the roads. In the morning we discover the village and the Baroque portals through which we arrive in the center with its two cathedrals (the Roman Catholic one was built between the 13th and 16th centuries), the Accademicum Collegium, established in 1622, and the Palatul Princiar, the seat to the princes of Transylvania, used as barracks under the Hapsburgs. The crystal clear morning air, combined with a rare, but intense sun, draws light to the yellow stones of the buildings, setting them on fire.

Around midnight we arrive in Sibiu, one of the most fortified towns in Transylvania, on the banks of the Cibin river. A beautiful town that was a Roman colony and came under Saxon rule in the 12th century. The one-hour journey treats us to the sight of 50-odd blue and green villages and just as many spires, a group of five carts and the rolling Carpathians that lead us to Sibiu at 430 meters above sea level. The roads are lined with vendors selling candles of the dead, hitchhikers and wild dogs. The town is a triumph of gothic elements, towers, bastions and medieval houses, flowers adorning every niche of the evangelist church, which houses a 16th-century fresco of Christ in prison, a unique piece of art history.

At night we sleep in Brasov, a spectacular and thriving town on the border between Moldavia and Wallachia, founded in 1211 by the Teutonic Knights. All we have to do is get out of the car and walk along the side of the Boulevard Eroilor for the usual group of elderly women to come up to us, all speaking with a certain aristocratic tone, offering us rooms rich with carpets and heated by majolica wood ovens at 400-500 lei a night (18-22 euros). The day after we visit Biserica Neagra (Black Church, the name deriving from its walls being blackened by the fire that destroyed the city in 1689) which astounds us with the hundreds of prayer mats hung along the walls. We also go to Sfintul Nicolae (Saint Nicholas’s), built between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th, and Sfintul Bartolomeu (Saint Bartholomew’s), the oldest building in the city, with characteristic Cistercian gothic forms and a 12th-century apse. When it came to eating we trusted our instincts – we were about to go into Cerbul (Piata Stefului), which seemed like a typical local restaurant – when we decided to ask for advice. A young couple that spoke English recommended New York New York [sic!] for its cheap food and luxurious service. We enjoyed a fairly good Dealu Mare Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, produced by Aurelia Visinescu, accompanied by a meal of meat and salad pointlessly drowned in McDonald’s-like sauces.

If you don’t go south towards Bucharest remember that you can’t leave Rumania without seeing Cluj Napoca (where we stop for a night and suffer the petulance of a typical Sixties bellboy, all compliments and handshakes) and Sighisoara (a Roman castle where both Vlad Dracul II and Vlad Tepes III, the Impaler, were born) which consists of an extraordinary series of gothic buildings under the November mists, and at least a few monasteries in Bucovina, a northern region.

Transylvania deeply moves us with the unbounded beauty of its uncontaminated landscapes, rural hamlets and 13th-century cities. And even if the roads and hotels are not up to Western standards, some credit must be given for the pleasure of this medieval ambiance.

Budapest and the Hungarian Countryside
The fog is so thick that the landscape can’t contain it all: we creep through it in the car and it’s possible that some even seeped into my corduroy jacket pockets. I drive at the pace of a Rumanian cart and, when the fog disappears there isn’t even a molehill to break up the unnerving plains of the Hungarian countryside: uninhabited, monotonous and boring beyond belief. After a while, however, we enter on the beltway around Budapest and we start to understand the magic of the bridges over the Danube, forgetting the tediousness of the trip there. The city’s monuments are opulent and Slavic, the insistence of the doormen at the strip clubs is rather Latin, and the prices of the marvelous carpet and antique stores are quite Austrian. At night Budapest is, at least at this time of year, more deserted than Alba Julia: all of the action revolves around the lounges of the luxury hotels and the strippers’ poles.

There isn’t a corner of this city that isn’t worth seeing, from the Jewish quarter with the largest synagogue in Europe, to the hill that looms over the city with its magnificent bridges, luminous boulevards, and grandiose architecture of both civic and religious edifices. Two important recommendations: the hotel Kristal (tars Utka 9, tel: 36-1-4669043, e-mail: [email protected]) at the foot of the hill with welcoming, but few, double rooms at 60-80 euros a night; and a restaurant that a Slow Food reporter shouldn’t dare to recommend. Tired of chicken and heavy sauces, we do what an Italian abroad should never do: we go to an Italian – Tuscan to be precise – restaurant called Trattoria Toscana (Belgrad Rakpout 13, on the banks of the Danube). Well, I know it’s hard to believe, but we eat very well, certainly better than we would have eaten in many so-called ‘typical’ restaurants in Versilia or Maremma. The prices are quite reasonable and the wine list if full of Tuscan, French and Hungarian wines at fair prices. We try a memorable Caciucco (Livornese seafood stew) and fagioli all’uccelletto (cannellini beans with tomato, sausage, garlic and sage), both accompanied by a Bordeaux assemblage produced in Hungary by Temelte és Palackozta-Vince Béla Eger 1998. We then pass a few days in this city, at last tasting some good gulasch before crossing back through Austria to return home.

Alessandro Monchiero, a journalist, works for Slow Food Editore

Photo: Vlad Tepes, the Impaler

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