lee robertson photography

Cornwall to Bucharest

Last thursday Chrissy woke me up asking if I wanted a job driving to Romania. Now this is not the thing I normally do. I had spent the last few months working at writing and other homebound jobs, here by the beach in North Cornwall. It was a friends company that needed a van full of equipment at Bucharest airport by Monday morning. Within a couple of hours I was on my way to Bristol to pick up the van. I had four days to get there. That evening, I crossed the channel at Dover and by 4 am had crossed the Rhine at Cologne. A fast journey I thought as I remembered my WWII history. I pulled over at a quiet woodland under a huge moon, the weather had turned warm, much warmer than home, and I slept with the windows open moonbathing. At first light I pushed on. With the sunlight the land was warming quickly and I followed the unwinding road east with bright sunlight in my eyes along the rushing German autobahns. By ten in the morning the sun was high, temperatures in the late twenties and I felt baked with the sunlight on my chest. I pulled over when I saw a village on the way to Frankfurt with a lake. It was bliss to find cold water to bathe in and afterwards with the van parked under the shade of some tall trees I slept again, my head against the door pillar, as comfortable as could be. Later that afternoon and the miles clicked off toward the Austrian border. At a beautiful town on the Donner called Regensburg I stopped for lunch in the square, and watched a large group of US army students having some free time around the bars. As they headed from one tavern to another I wondered how they and the town would be with the onset of darkness, their afternoon drunk would get worse, their small town americanisms would butt against the local order. I watched them antagonise a bakery, a scenario no doubt played out year in and year out with the still sizeable american forces based in the country. Living a cold war fantasy, an anachronism in recent political change.
Crossing the border into Austria I wanted to get a good nights sleep, and stopped driving at Linz where I had a hotel booked in the city centre. It wasn’t long before I was walking through the early evening light on the high street. It was Friday and it seemed the whole city had put on their best clothes to meet. Many of the shops had impromptu high tables set out with glasses of wine for their customers. On one side street a Brazilian circle dance was being enacted with many joining in. I found a spot for dinner, Viener Shnitzel in a Biergarten that was packed and noisy with families. Sharing a table with two students, I talked politics, art and social history, The more I drunk the more I wanted to learn about their understanding of europe. It could have been 1912, 1952 or 2012, central Europe still felt like a great melting pot of ideas, thoughts and philosophies. I went to bed early wishing I could have caroused and argued right through a midsummer Austrian weekend night. The morning following I awoke very early and again headed east into the morning sunrise. The sky was a deep blue over the white topped Alps to the south, a beautiful vista I would have loved to travel into, I persevered East. Not long after I crossed into Hungary and drove empty motorway miles across huge expanses of farms; a vista of wheat fields, green in new growth as far as I could see. Now the sun was beginning to bake on the tarmac. 32c and it was before mid day. I kept the window open at 70 mph and watched the road unwind hour by hour. I passed a town on the great plain, a huge monolith tower on the highest point almost keeping watch over miles and miles of empty countryside. Twenty miles before the Romanian border the motorway stopped. I was leaving Europe behind. As I had headed east the architecture was changing mile by mile, but now at the border the change was dramatic. I drove through pot holed streets, and overtook a mile of lorries waiting for customs. Into Romania itself and the border area was full of people trying to stop me. I had to pull over to change money, buy road tax, and get some petrol, and as soon as I stopped a man began washing the windows. I eventually changed some cash on the street, having to make fast calculations, and watch out for the swindle, that was of course attempted. At the same time a gypsy woman was trying to sell me a picture of Jesus, a small card with a gold halo. Eventually I got back into the van, locked the doors and was trying to clear reversing space while the windscreen washer was trying to charge me 5 euros. I turned up the stereo to add to everyones general discombobulation, but forgot to buy the card from the gipsy, I am ashamed I didn’t, I almost turned back ten miles later. From the border to Bucharest was about 500 miles. No motorways, hardly any dual carriageways, just village after village. Often I would have to stop for a horse and cart, the whole family aboard, and many of the people dressed traditionally. At  6 pm that night I wanted to stop for a rest and looked for accommodation. Eventually I saw a sign for a pension, pointing down a country lane. I crossed a torrent of a river on an old iron bridge and then followed signs up into the hills and forests, eventually going off road until I found an old timber farmhouse on a lake. I waited for an acknowledgement of my arrival, I could hear a far off dog barking. Eventually a teenage girl  arrived to tell me they were fully booked. It took an hour from leaving the road to get back on it, and I carried on until nine when I eventually found a gothic, old hotel in the middle of a petrochemical town called Deva.

The next morning I was still tired, but pushed on after waking until I reached Transylvania, where I found a roadside cheese seller, and bought a loaf of bread, a pungent block of white cheese and a small pot of honey. It gave a fine breakfast among the trees overlooking the Olt River and sustenance for the final miles to Bucharest. I had booked an hotel in the city centre and enjoyed the chaos of trams, buses, taxis and people in the old streets, until I passed Ceaucescu’s Palace, twice. I asked a policeman eventually who used his new phone to direct me to the right quarter and I found my booking in a modern hotel in an old residential area full of the most delightful architecture from the fin de siecle. It was all very gothic and run down and I loved the shabby ‘horror movie’ houses, some now restaurants or bars with beer gardens in the courtyards. It seemed that getting a supply of electricity meant hooking up to the nearest box, I was amazed at the cables running between the houses, like a gothic cobweb of modernism. I wanted to have a night out in the city. Seeing what the Bucharest night had to offer, but I was too tired, and after a walk around the neighbourhood and a beer in a courtyard bar, I slept and slept. 2000 miles 3 days.

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