Small disclaimer: I’m going to be using the word ‘gypsy’. This word is regarded by many to be a racial slur, but this is the word they say in Romania. And they say it a lot. Every time I used the P.C. approved ‘Roma’ and ‘Romani’, people yelled back at me, “What is this word?? I don’t understand you. Do you mean gypsy???” Alright, fine. When in Romania do as the Romanians do. Gypsy it is.
After bidding adieu to the Sherlocks in Budapest, we boarded a night train to Romania’s Transylvania region for our Romania Detour. This was hands-down the best sleeper train ever, but I won’t bore you by enumerating all of its many delights. Let’s just say that we had a private cabin so there were no 6 am hotdogs (fun though that was) and we had a sink and shower (eee!!!) in each car. I could have stayed on that train for a full week – it was that great. Actually, I spent much of the next week wishing I had in fact stayed on that train, as the shower situation awaiting me in Brasov was grim…
Upon surveying the sparse crowd at the Brașov train station, Jeff and I were satisfied that we had evaded the tourist hordes endemic to European summer. Brașov is the de facto tourism capital of Romania’s Transylvania region, and it is the embodiment of ‘Romanian village’. Nestled between the Făgăraș and Carpathian mountain ranges, Brașov’s old city is a maze of medieval streets, crooked timber storefronts, and a sea of craggily red tile roofs. It’s very cute in the summer, but I couldn’t help imagining how cold and isolated this place must feel in the winter. Brașov is home to the beautiful Biserica Neagră, or Black Church, so named because of a massive fire that damaged the church during the Great Turkish War in the 1600s. Luckily the church was mostly restored and now faces a very lovely central pedestrian promenade selling some oddly good pretzels. Brașov is sleepy, but its a perfectly peaceful little town to spend some time in.
Most people use Brașov a home-based to see Transylvania’s fortresses and castles, notably the legendary Bran Castle. Billed as the home of Vlad Țepeș (aka Vlad the Impaler), Bran Castle has to be one of the most effective marketing ploys of the modern tourism industry. While it is true that Vlad Țepeș lived and impaled in Transylvania during the mid-1400’s, he did not live at Bran’s Castle. At best maybe he stayed at the castle for a week… and yet the tourists flock.
While we do enjoy gory historical figures, what I wanted to see in Transylvania were some gypsies. (This is offensive; see the above.) My intrigue probably originated from my great-grandmother’s threat that naughty children (i.e. me) would be sold to a band of gypsies. I never saw said gypsy bands roaming Ogden, Utah, but this in no way mitigated the threat and actually made gypsies seem mythical, like mermaids or elves. (Again, offensive. Again, see above.) As an adult I think that I’m intrigued with Roma – ahem, gypsies – because they are a historic relic from a time when the world wasn’t delineated into the nation states of today. A stateless people spread across Europe, persecuted by the Nazis, and severely disenfranchised by communism, the gypsies have not fared well in the modern world. Many gypsies now live in cities, but the Romanian countryside is dotted with ‘gypsy villages’ often on the outskirts of larger so-called ‘Saxon villages’.
Given their history, it is not surprising that modern day gypsy communities are secretive and suspicious of outsiders. You can’t really visit a village on your own and have an interesting experience. After much scouring I found exactly 3 tour guides in Brașov offering trips to gypsy villages, and I contacted them all. The replies were very Goldilocks’ porridge.
“Unfortunately, we no longer do gypsy village tours. Each time we visit the gypsies they extort the tourists for lots of money. “
“I CAN ARRANGE A TOUR WHERE YOU STAY WITH THE GYPSIES OVERNIGHT AND YOU CAN SKIN A RABBIT AND YOU CAN TAKE THE RABBIT FOOT AND YOU CAN EAT THE RABBIT. But you need to bring your own salt.” (I’m not exaggerating this in the slightest. Not even the salt part.)
“Sure. I can take you to a gypsy village on Tuesday at 9:00 am.”
Great, this was our guy. We didn’t have to skin any rabbits, but it did turn out our guide was essentially Borat’s Romanian cousin, who I will call Gorat. (note of interest: the Borat movie was actually filmed in Romania, not Kazakhstan.)
We began our day with Gorat and the gypsies by doing a little grocery shopping. Since gypsies aren’t very open to strangers you need to arrive with some kind of offering. Our offering was like 15 cabbages we bought at an oddly good farmers market on the outskirts of Brașov. Provisions secured, we headed north for a long drive in the Transylvanian hills and like any good road trip we learned a lot about Gorat as we settled in. He believes in the magical power of bee pollen, thinks that homeless people and beggars are lazy, and is convinced that a man’s true strength sets in between the ages of 35 – 40 (good news for Jefferboo, I guess). He learned a bit about us too, repeatedly asking me if my ‘teeth are mine’. Yes, Gorat, they’re real.
One of Gorat’s road trip games was a version of ‘Slug Bug’ called ‘Spot the Prostitute’. Every time he saw a woman on the side of the road he’d yell out, ‘There’s a prostitute!’. When I’d optimistically offer that maybe she’s waiting for a bus, or perhaps meeting a friend, he’d say, “No, I know her…”. It was a fun game, and the fewer questions asked the better.
It took several hours on a succession of increasingly poor roads, but we finally made it to the gypsies. With such a long build up I’d love to tell you that we fought a bear and rode a donkey, but the gypsy village was very subdued. It turns out the gypsies are just normal, super poor rural people with no support from their government. We spent some time with a woman named Irena and her 18-year-old daughter Alena. Over cookies and super sweet schnapps, we talked about Alena’s interest in carpentry, the high cost of schooling, and how few services the Romanian government provides to gypsies. Irena showed us around her property, her horse stable, and her rabbits, which luckily we didn’t kill (phew). Our time with the gypsies was far less insane than my initial research had suggested it might be, but it was a really great experience to spend some in a village and see the reality of life in rural Romania.
After we left the gypsies Gorat drove us around the Romanian countryside for a while, which I have to admit is uniquely beautiful and bucolic. Along the way Gorat peppered us with questions about being a truck driver in America (it seemed that was his long term career aspiration), and why we don’t just build a wall and send the Mexicans “home” (this was a bit hard to dive into during a leisurely drive).
As we headed back to Brașov, I spotted some beehives on the side of the road and asked Gorat to pull over (which he did since he loves bee pollen). It was also a good respite from the barrage of questions Gorat had about being a truck driver in America. The beekeeper was a delightful pensioner, who had gotten really into his beekeeping hobby since retiring. He lived near the Black Sea, but for reasons that were never fully explained was taking his bees on a 500 mile road trip across Romania. His bees lived in a sweet caravan-hive and he was camping out in a bright yellow van. He was perplexed when we asked to buy some of his honey, but and after rummaging around in the back of this van-cum-bedroom he found some empty water bottles to fill up for us. This stuff is absolutely excellent. It’s the real deal, and it was a treat to meet this beekeeper.
So that’s our Romania detour. Oh sure, Croatia has its beautiful coastlines and beautiful people, but you know what it doesn’t have? Gorat, gypsies, and beekeepers. Well, I’m pretty sure they have gypsies and beekeepers, but our Romanian detour had a bit more adventure and circumvented the crowds, so, great success!
Stay tuned for our next stop of the detour as we head south to Bulgaria – a country that we know absolutely nothing about!!!