Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen is a good place to chillax. Moulay Ali Ben Moussa Ben Rachid El Alami was its founder in 1471. It provided sanctuary for Moorish exiles from Spain and went on to welcome Jews and Christians in turn. Many people speak Spanish as well as Arabic, as opposed to French in most of the rest of Morocco.

Initially we were unable to locate Dar Meziana in the intricate plethora of streets, but they’re used to that!  We called them from a café and they sent someone out to fetch us. It was cold, wet and windy in March, so the mint tea and pastries served ‘on the house’ in front of an open fire in the dining room were much appreciated. We ate our breakfast there each morning too although in warm weather one can take it on the roof terrace.  I don’t know what the other bedrooms looked like but we marvelled at ours!

The owner speaks excellent English and was keen to enable us to enjoy our stay and answer all my questions. I say my questions because I want to stress that Tim likes to stick to his guidebook and usually (but not always) has the answers already, while I just like having an excuse to talk to people! I did find out one theory as to why the town is painted blue, which differs from those to be found in most guidebooks. Apparently a local businessman decided to paint his property blue and when his luck soon took a sharp turn for the better, hoping for the same good fortune, all the locals decided to paint their homes and businesses a similar hue. The result is striking!

 

Chefchaouen is compact and apart from exploring the town itself, which is sufficiently interesting, there is scope for both some serious walking and wonderful strolls in the Rif mountains. We did what was probably the easiest walk. The trail begins from Bab al Ansar, the medina’s eastern gate, and passes the Ras el’Ma river, before continuing about forty minutes up the hillside towards the recently renovated Spanish mosque which affords great views back towards the town. It’s possible to continue on the trail and we managed to make it into a circuitous route – always my preference. You’ll likely see locals heading to and from nearby villages and plenty of goats!

Singapore 2 – remarkably green

Considering its reputation as a hard-working business-oriented place, Singapore is quite remarkably green – in fact it’s possibly the world’s most biodiverse city. It’s not just the huge central catchment area around the island’s reservoirs of drinking water, but the fact that millions of trees have been planted since the first Tree Planting Day in 1971 – the streets of Singapore are lined with fine examples of carefully chosen tree species, many of which have been colonised by epiphytic ferns and the like, which all seem to be in remarkably good health too.

Luxuriant epiphytes

I was walking, not nature-spotting, but I did see long-tailed macaques, turtles, lizards, squirrels, herons and egrets, and a water monitor; in the 19th century there were tigers and elephants on the island, but now probably the most charismatic wildlife to be seen is the white-bellied fish eagle, probably most easily seen at Sentosa Island (see below). Other migrant raptors can be seen in wetlands, mostly well away from the city centre, such as Changi, Kranji, Chek Jawa and Sungei Buloh.

Perhaps the best-known and most easily reached jungle on the edge of the city lies in the world-famous Singapore Botanic Gardens (on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 2015). This was founded in 1859 to research possible crops, a successor to the one set up by Stamford Raffles in 1822 on Government Hill (now Fort Canning Hill), and from 1877 laid the basis for the rubber industry. It also houses the National Orchid Garden, which created the science and business of orchid hybridisation and is home to a collection of 1,200 species and 2,000 hybrids. Amazingly, the gardens are open from 5am to midnight every day of the year and are free, except for the orchid garden. They cover 82ha (stretched out over a distance of 2.5km), of which about 6ha is still primary rainforest. There’s also the new Gardens by the Bay, which I mentioned in this post.

Just a couple of kilometres beyond the Botanic Gardens is a much greater area of jungle around the MacRitchie Reservoir, on the southern side of the central catchment area – buses along Thomson Road will leave you at the eastern entrance, and Marymount MRT station isn’t far away. It’s remarkably busy at weekends, but you can still enjoy primary jungle, and some planted rubber trees, and see long-tailed macaques going about their business oblivious to their human neighbours (although there are plenty of warning signs about potential interactions). There are kayaking and canoeing facilities and hiking trails of between 3km and 11km in length, as well as the TreeTop Walk, a 250m-long suspension bridge between the reserve’s two highest hilltops.

The central reservoirs have not been sufficient since 1930, when water began to be piped in from Malaysia; but, mindful of the fact that Hong Kong’s water shortage meant that there was no choice but to hand it over to China, Singapore’s government has striven to boost its supplies. NEWater plants treat wastewater with microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet technologies, and now produce 5% of Singapore’s water supply – the technology is now being sold to the Gulf States as an alternative to desalination. In addition, following the clean-up of the Singapore River (1977-87) and the creation of the Marina Bay area, a barrage has been built and all the areas of water that you see in the city centre now actually form the new Marina Reservoir (there’s a celebrity family of smooth otters that has taken up residence here).

It’s worth mentioning the Bukit Brown cemetery, just off Lornie Rd between the Botanic Gardens and the MacRitchie Reservoir, which served the dead of the Chinese community from 1922 to 1973 and is now a place of sentimental, ecological and heritage importance. Despite a passionate campaign to save it, 3,700 of its 100,000 graves have now been exhumed to allow the construction of an eight-lane expressway, cutting it in half. This is not new – the Kallang cemeteries were cleared to allow the construction of Singapore’s first international airport in 1937, and Orchard Road, the city’s main shopping street, is also on a former Chinese graveyard. In 2001-6, 58,000 Christian and 68,000 Muslim graves were exhumed from Bidadari cemetery, to be replaced by a new town. Even in 1978, 213 burial grounds covered 2,146ha, or about 3.7% of the island’s area, but now cremation is near-compulsory – only one cemetery is still in use and burial plots there can only be leased for a maximum of 15 years. Religious habits have changed and indeed faded, and the cemeteries no longer see families gathering at festival times to pay their respects to their ancestors. Nevertheless, Bukit Brown is an important part of the island’s green lungs and there are fears that the last natural bastions against flooding in the area may be being removed.

Birdwatching in the canopy.

I was particularly impressed by the recent creation of the Southern Ridges Trail, a 9km route linking together various green spaces just west of the centre which was made possible by the building of two striking and expensive bridges over a couple of main roads. Opposite the gate of Reflections at Bukit Chimu, an excellent museum about the resistance to the Japanese invaders that I mentioned in my previous post, there’s the start of a canopy walk through secondary forest, at the end of which you can turn left following signs to the Hortpark and duck down to pass beneath the canopy walk and go through the Hortpark, the city’s gardening resource centre. Then you’ll cross the Alexandra Arch, across Alexandra Road, skirt the former Gillman Barracks, now being recreated as art galleries and sympathetic restaurants and bars, and take a largely elevated walkway through Telok Blangah Hill Park, luxuriant secondary forest with plenty of birdlife. From here the Henderson Waves footbridge rises 36m above Henderson Road and into Mount Faber Park, where you’ll follow a road briefly to the terminal of the cable-car to Harbourfront and Sentosa Island; Mount Faber Road leads down east towards the centre, but I followed the Marang Trail down the hill south to Harbourside MRT station. This only took a couple of hours of mildly sweaty hiking, with signs giving information on flora and warning about monkeys along the way. You could also walk in the other direction from the canopy walk to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, where rainforest surrounds the island’s highest hill (164m).

Incidentally, from Harbourfront the Boardwalk to Sentosa Island (where’s a kitschy resort and casino, but also plenty of secondary rainforest and a World War II gun battery) is now open without charge at all times.

The next major project now under construction is the Green Corridor, converting the former railway from Cantonment Rd via Bukit Timah to the Causeway at Woodlands to a linear park and cycle route. At the moment those wanting to cycle some distance away from traffic are best off in the East Coast Park which runs east for about 15km from the city centre to Changi, entirely on reclaimed land; bikes can be rented at PCN Pit-Stop stations throughout the park and returned to any other one if you want to jump on the MTR. It’s not much further to Pulau Ubin, an island off Singapore’s northeastern coast (a short boat trip from Changi Point), busy at weekends with people renting MTBs to ride through Singapore’s few remaining kampongs or traditional Malay villages.

The Singaporean government is known for its successful social engineering, persuading its citizens to cut out unhygienic habits, to switch from speaking Hokkien and Malay to Mandarin and English, or to follow certain desired career paths; one of its most visible successes at the moment is the number of people out exercising – most obviously the old folk using the exercise machines on every housing estate, and jogging very slowly around the reservoirs. Schoolchildren are also learning about sustainability and green values, so there’s a good chance Singapore’s surviving wild lands will be even better cared for in the future.

Singapore – a new cultural dynamo

I like Singapore – it’s clean and efficient (if a bit hot and humid) and the people are friendly, businesslike and go-ahead. But I have to say, it’s changed a lot since I was last here in 1983 – for one thing, it’s literally grown 100 square kilometres in size since then, thanks to land reclamation at Changi airport at its eastern tip, at the Jurong industrial zone to the west and, most obviously, at Marina Bay immediately south of the historic city centre. The close-packed skyscrapers around the Downtown MRT (subway) station have only been there a few years, and there’s much more to come. The aim is for the island-state to be the size of New York City (789 square kilometres) by 2030.

Singapore’s amazing growth was built in the 1960s and ‘70s on manufacturing, then it moved into finance and transport (it’s the world’s second busiest port and busiest transhipment hub, with a ship arriving or departing every three minutes, and 1,000 vessels in port at any time), and recently it has decided to also establish itself as a tourism centre and also as a cultural hub for the region. On the downside that means it’s allowed two casinos to be established (each with a fairly poor museum set up as part of the deal), but on the other hand a huge amount of public money has gone into culture and beautification. A large chunk of Marina Bay (just over 100ha) has been used to create Gardens by The Bay, a public park with a difference, notably its artifical SuperTrees, huge sculptural forms with creepers growing up them and solar panels that light them up at night in a variety of crazy colours. There are two biodomes that you have to pay to vist, and a 128m-long Skywalk between some Supertrees, but otherwise this is free (5am-2am). There’s a 3.5km pedestrian route around Marina Bay, incorporating the high-tech Helix Bridge (although this and the Jubilee Bridge, also on the trail, are rather devalued by being alongside busy roads); it links to the 8km Jubilee Walk, created in 2015 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s full independence, which follows the Singapore River from the bay to Fort Canning Hill, passing many historic buildings that have recently been repurposed for cultural activities.

Lots of new museums

The most impressive of these are right on North Boat Quay, in the heart of the Colonial District, notably the Court House (1867), which re-opened as the Asian Civilisations Museum in 2003, the Old Parliament House (1827), which became The Arts House after the current parliament opened in 1999, and the Town Hall (1862), which became the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall in 2014. Immediately behind is the grandest of them all, the National Gallery Singapore, created in 2015 when the Supreme Court (the last of Singapore’s huge Neoclassical edifices to be built, in 1939) and the City Hall (1929) were linked by a modern atrium, giving access to the basement ticket desks and as far up as the rotundas and the roof terrace (don’t miss the great views over the Padang, the grassy expanse in the middle of the Colonial District). It houses a good spread of Singaporean art (first by Europeans, and then largely by Chinese artists until the 1970s, including some fine woodblock prints) and also comparative displays by artists from across South-East Asia, a good idea but slightly unfocussed.

Across the river to the south, the massive Fullerton Building was built in 1928 as the General Post Office, where virtually all the mail between Europe and Australasia was sorted, and was converted to a luxury hotel in 2001; it’s very imposing, but right next to it is the more charming Fullerton Waterboat House, a lovely piece of Art Deco from 1949 that’s now a restaurant. It’s so called because the main supplier of drinking water to ships in the harbour was based here.

The excellent Singapore National Museum was actually built as a museum, in 1887, but was also revamped for the Jubilee, with a new atrium and a children’s wing – it’s on the north side of Fort Canning Hill, at the inland end of the Jubilee Walk. Nearby, and also well worth looking out for, is the Peranakan Museum, built as a school in 1906-12, which opened in 2008 to commemorate the culture of the people who were known as Straits Chinese (and as Baba-Nyonya) last time I was here – the community formed since the 15th century by Chinese traders who settled here, in Melaka and Penang and across the wider region, and intermarried with Malays. Their furniture and other artefacts, in particular, are of very high quality.

Characteristic shophouses, characteristic apartment blocks

There are also heritage centres dedicated to the Chinese Indian and Malay communities, in the hearts of Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glem respectively, three areas of two- and three-story shophouses that are now conservation areas amid the city’s modern skyscrapers. Shophouses, with accommodation above and behind a shopfront, originated in the 1840s, but many of the most spectacular ones date from 1900-40, with some fine Art Deco examples from the 1930s-60s. The centre of Chinatown is now horrendously crowded and touristy, but it’s worth pushing on south to Neil Road (also the place for Korean restaurants) and Blair Plain, to see terraces of shophouses that now house cool coffee houses and boutique guesthouses. The Baba House, at 157 Neil Road, was opened in 2008 by the National University and gives a fine insight into Baba-Nyonya culture, although this is now a less attractive  stretch of Neil Road.

Note that I’m talking about the Chinatown Heritage Centre, not the Chinese Heritage Centre at Nanyang Technological University, which does have a museum but is more of an academic centre. The Indian Heritage Centre opened in 2015 in a very striking modern building and has the most modern displays of the three; the Malay Heritage Centre opened in 2004 in the relatively dull palace of the Sultan in Singapore (NB not the Sultan OF Singapore –  this was a cunning ruse to allow the Sultan of Johore to be replaced by his chief minister in 1855, while the Sultan retired to Singapore).

Opened in April 2015, the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum claims to be the newest museum in Singapore, but the Indian Heritage Centre actually opened a month later, and in any case it inherited its collections from the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, which dates back to the original donation by Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore in 1819, to create a general museum for Singapore.

A non-governmental museum project – but seemingly just as well funded – is the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum – occupying a whole block of Chinatown, this was established to house a tooth of the Buddha found in Myanmar and donated in 2002 for safekeeping. Opened in 2007, the temple is largely in 7/8th-century Tang style, but the upper floors house a surprisingly good museum (free, and air-conditioned, of course) that tells the story of the historic Buddha along with an excellent selection of sculptures, including quite a few from Gandhara. I first came across these 2nd- and 3rd-century Buddha carvings in Pakistan in 1983, and have loved them ever since for their Oriental spirituality allied with an oddly Greek style, especially in the clothing. It’s also worth mentioning the ‘vegetarian dining hall for charity’ in the basement.

Another private venture is the Singapore Art Museum, opened in 1996 in a former mission school (1855 to 1990), which aims to be the regional centre for contemporary (edgy) art.

Finally, there are fifty World War II sites dotted about the island, twenty of them with plaques put up either in 1995 (the 40th anniversary of liberation) or in 2012 (the 70th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore). The Ford Factory at Bukit Timah, where the British surrendered in 1942, is apparently interesting, but is closed for renovation; otherwise I found Reflections at Bukit Chindu excellent (and the Canopy Walk at the start of the Southern Ridges Trail is right opposite the gate – see my next post, on natural Singapore). This is where soldiers of the Malay Regiment, founded only in 1933, put up heroic resistance to the Japanese on 14 February 1942, as they closed in on the city and pressed for a British surrender, which came the next day.

The Singapore Museum Guide, published in January 2016, includes virtually every little museum in town but, oddly, not the National Gallery; virtually all museums are free for Singapore citizens and residents, but others will pay around S$20 (£11) – don’t hesitate, these are easily the best museums in the region, with very professional standards of presentation.

Some practicalities

Singapore does, of course, have an excellent public transport system, with two companies operating a fully integrated system of buses and MRT trains. Most signs and notices are in English (but stations all have numbers, such as CC1 to CC29 (so far) on the Circle Line) and there are squeaky-clean public toilets at most stations. If you’re around for more than a day or so, you should buy an EZ-Link chip-card which costs S$5 (non-refundable) and can store as much credit as you want – and this can be refunded. With the EZ-Link card journeys are far cheaper than with the ‘standard’ ticket, a card with a chip which can store anything up to six trips; there’s also the Singapore Tourist Pass, which comes loaded on an EZ-Link card and gives free travel on MRT, LRT and basic bus services for up to three days (S$10 for one day, S$16 for two days and S$20 for three days). There’s a S$10 deposit for this which will be refunded if you return the card within five days of purchase, or you can simply top it up and use it like a regular EZ-Link card.

The MRT is undergoing a major expansion programme at the moment, aiming to double the system’s length by 2030, including a new 50km Cross Island Line from Changi to Jurong just north of the city. In the second quarter of 2017 the East-West Line will be extended west from Joo Koon to Tuas Link (adjacent to the Second Link to Malaysia), amd later in 2017 Stage 3 of the Downtown Line will open from Chinatown to Expo, out east near Changi Airport. In 2023 the North East Line will be extended 1.6km from Punggol to Pinggol Coast, to serve a new Digital District. It’s worth mentioning that the Circle Line will actually be a circle from 2025 when the 4km missing link from Marina Bay to Harbourfront, via Cantonment and Keppel, will open.

Singapore has an unspoken social contract – the infrastructure has to run well (for instance signal failures on the MRT are unacceptable) to compensate for loss of freedoms, if people are going to continue supporting the governing party – so the 2011 elections, when the opposition won six seats, came as a shock and forced the government to get a grip – it is now taking back control of the MRT stations, track and trains, and the operators will provide only the passenger services.

Given that public transport is so good, why do so many Singaporeans drive at all? From the 1960s to the 1980s Singapore built a system of expressways before realising that they were simply generating traffic. The first MRT line opened in 1989 (with the North-South and East-West lines both opening in 1990), and in 1990 the Vehicle Quota System was introduced – this limits the number of cars in Singapore by means of public auctions, twice a year, for a Certificate of Entitlement allowing one to own a car for a ten-year period. Currently this costs about S$5,000 (£32,000), although it has been twice as much, and on top of that cars are heavily taxed. There’s also Electronic Road Pricing (a congestion charge) to pay. The odd effect is that Singaporeans buy more top-end cars and SUVs than most other nations, because you might as well go the whole hog if you’re spending that sort of money, and it doesn’t seem very much more overall – and then of course having spent so much they’re impelled to use the car as much as possible when the MRT might well be easier. So the expressways are still ridiculously busy.

Wales

I was born in Swansea, South Wales, lived in Pembrokeshire for a while as a young mother and in March will embark on a walk of the newly developed and marked Coast Path of the entire country – all 870 miles of it! Tim is also due to update one of his guidebooks there and so we’ll be posting fairly regularly about Wales from March onwards.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Cornwall as Tim hails from there, and am mindful that Pembrokeshire, whilst similar in many ways, has not developed as much and so mostly retains its original charm and beauty minus the crowds.  For this reason, and because my friend Freddie who lives there is anxious to protect this quality, we shan’t be reporting on all of our favourite spots. Also because for me a part of the pleasure is discovery – and I wouldn’t want to deny that by telling all. On the other hand, I’m keen to support enterprise which supports the local economy, particularly if it’s geared up to sustaining the traveller.

I was in Haverfordwest recently and came across The Creative Common at 11 Goat Street, a fab co-working space (bookable by the hour/day if you need to catch up on work!) and café, with great coffee and also tea served with attention to detail. It came in a pot with diffuser and a timer to ensure correct brew time! The cakes are yummy too. It’s tucked away in a side street but well worth seeking out and only a hundred yards or so from the main drag. The young couple running it are super friendly and efficient.

Tim’s take – I’ve been writing about Haverfordwest for the last few years and one thing I’ve learnt is that this is a town that doesn’t support its restaurants. Interesting places open up and then close, usually just after I’ve put them into the new edition of the Rough Guide. I hope Creative Common does better!

More Romanian villages and other out-takes

Continuing with the topic of cuts to the 7th edition of the Rough Guide to Romania and my mission to put much of the lost text into the public domain (see my previous posts here and here), in the Maramureş chapter the villages of Giuleşti, Berbeşti, Glod and Petrova were cut, and I’ve put the text below. In the Banat and Crişana chapter I was happy to cut most of the villages northeast of Arad (Salonta, Bârsa, Ineu, Pâncota and Moneasa), whch were included only because of their very minor festivals. as well as Lesnic (east of Arad), but I did manage to add a few further south, such as Oraviţa and Sasca Română/Sasca Montana.

As for the chapters that I wasn’t involved with, the coverage of Bucharest is still undoubtedly exemplary, but even so the Russian church, the Museum of Old Western Arts and the Museum of Popular Arts have been cut, as well as Căciulaţi and Căldăruşani in the city’s outskirts. From the Wallachia chapter Breaza, Cheia, the Rucăr area, Călimăneşti-Căciulata, Polovragi, Bistriţa, Arnota and Tismana have gone; from the Moldavia chapter Galaţi (a major city), Brăila, Focşani, Mărăşeşti, Bacău, Panciu, Odobeşti, Oneşti, Slănic Moldova, Târgu Ocna and Vama have been lost. And Niculiţel, Babadag, Basarabi, Medgidia and Murfatlar (one of Romania’s best-known wine-making areas) were cut from the Delta and the Coast chapter.

Contexts (the background section at the rear of the Rough Guide) got squeezed, of course, and Alexander the Good has vanished – a shame as he pops up in the Moldavia chapter, so let me just say that he was the ruling prince of Moldavia (Moldova) between 1400 and 1432, who may have earned his honorary title (Alexandru cel Bun) by ousting the Turks from the eastern marches, though it could well have been bestowed by the Basarab family, whom he made feudal lords of the region subsequently known as Bessarabia.

Maramureş

GIULEŞTI AND BERBEŞTI

Further north on the main road to Sighet is GIULEŞTI, a larger village which has a stone church and, like many of these villages, an ancient watermill: its two mill wheels grind wheat and corn, the miller traditionally taking one cupful of each hopper-load. Everything is made of wood, right down to the little water channels lubricating the spindles of the wheels, and it doubles as a fulling mill, its large wooden mallets beating the cloth clean.

On the northern edge of BERBEŞTI, a 300-year-old carved wooden crucifix (troiţa), adorned with four mourning figures and symbols of the sun and moon, stands beside the road, a reminder of a time when travel was considered dangerous; no journeys were made on Tuesdays, which were deemed unlucky, and it was believed that after dark ghosts and vampires roamed the highways, seeking victims.

Arrival

Giuleşti and Berbeşti are on the Baia Mare–Sighet road, served by fifteen buses daily.

GLOD

From Poienile Izei, a poor road leads on to the tiny and unspoilt village of GLOD (more easily reached by a 7km road from the Iza valley just east of Bârsana). It’s known for its folk beliefs – for instance in werewolves and spirits of the night – and associations with the outlaw Pintea Viteazul; tales tell of his treasure buried under a spring and protected by a curse. There’s also a wooden church, dating from 1784.

Arrival

From the Autogara Jan in Sighet, there’s one daily bus to Glod, at 15.45.

 Accommodation

Pensiunea In Poiana, no.81; 0262/332 367, 0720/071 787, pensiunea-inpoiana.ro. Behind a traditional wooden gateway, a modern four-storey block houses a surprisingly welcoming guesthouse with a small swimming pool, and a large and adequate restaurant. €18

 

Romanian cinema

Various bits of Rough Guide text about Romanian film-making were amalgamated into a new Film section, but this also got cut at a late stage of the editing process, so here it is:

Romanian film is currently on a roll, its highly acclaimed New Wave beginning in 2005 with Cristi Puiu’s Moartea domnului Lăzărescu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu; 2005), the tale of an elderly man being trawled around Bucharest’s hospitals as he faces imminent death; this was followed by Corneliu Porumboiu’s A fost sau n-a fost? (12:08 East of Bucharest; 2006), a fabulous deadpan comedy surrounding the events of the 1989 revolution; Radu Muntean’s Hârtia va fi Albastră (The Paper Will Be Blue; 2006), a tragedy brought about by confusion and misunderstandings during the revolution; and Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; 2007), a tragic story of illegal abortion set during the final days of the Ceauşescu regime. In fact, Puiu had already made the low-budget road movie Marfa şi Bani (Stuff and Dough; 2001), now regarded as one of the classic Romanian films, and the short Un cartuş de Kent şi un pachet de cafea (Cigarettes and Coffee; 2004), which won a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival; Muntean had made the thriller Furia (The Rage; 2002), while Mungiu’s Occident, a tragicomedy about young people moving to Western Europe when they can not make ends meet in Romania, had come out in 2002, and Porumboiu had already made prize-winning shorts.

They’ve continued to make excellent films, mostly with a touch of black humour, such as Puiu’s Aurora (2010), the tale of an ordinary man cracking up, and Sierra-Nevada (2016). Porumboiu has had Polițist, Adjectiv (Police, Adjective; 2009), a masterfully crafted tale of choosing between the law, bureaucratic authority and a personal sense of justice, and Comoara (The Treasure; 2015). Muntean’s excellent Boogie, about Romanians in their 30s who try to reconcile marriage and partying, freedom and responsibilities, teenage and adulthood, came out in 2008, while Marţi, după Crăciun (Tuesday, After Christmas; 2010) is a domestic drama set against a backdrop of rampant consumerism, and Un etaj mai jos (One Floor Below; 2015) a slow-burning psychological drama. Finally there’s Mungiu’s Amintiri din epoca de aur (Tales from the Golden Age; 2009) and După Dealuri (Beyond the Hills; 2012), which won the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes.

These directors have inspired a younger generation, such as Cristian Nemescu, whose California Dreamin’ (2007) has a group of Americans soldiers stranded at a tiny Romanian railway station on their way to Kosovo; Marian Crisan with Morgen (2010) and Rocker (2012); Calin Peter Netzer, whose Poziţia Copilului (Child’s Pose; 2013) won a Golden Bear in Berlin; Tudor Giurgiu with Despre Oameni şi Melc (Of Snails And Men; 2012) and Why Me (2015); Florin Șerban with Eu cand vreau sa Fluier, Fluier (If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle; 2015) and Box (2015); and Radu Jude’s Cea mai fericită fată din lume (The Happiest Girl in the World; 2009), Toată lumea din familia noastră (Everybody in Our Family; 2012), and the black-and-white Aferim! (2015), which has been compared to Steve MacQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave, with its hunt for a runaway Gypsy slave – it won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin festival.

It’s not just feature films that show a typically dark and sardonic sense of humour: documentaries are also revisiting Romania’s recent history, such as Alexandru Solomon’s Kapitalism – Rețeta noastră secretă (Kapitalism: Our Improved Formula; 2010), with Ceauşescu returning after twenty years to see how things have changed, and Ilinca Calugareanu’s Chuck Norris vs Communism (2015), about how smuggled videos of action films may have helped to bring down communism.

 

And finally – I’ve always cared strongly about boosting local family-based rural tourism, and when village guesthouses started to appear in Romania but were failing to market themselves or to create a decent system for making available information about places to stay, I tried through several edition of the guide to give what links I could. That is no longer necessary, and my background text has now been cut, so here it is too:

Rural tourism

Ceauşescu’s systematization policy, aimed at demolishing many of Romania’s villages and moving the inhabitants to concrete apartment blocks, had hardly got started before his downfall, but it had attracted protests from Prince Charles, among others, and the Belgian charity Opération Villages Roumains. The programme was immediately scrapped by the new FSN government, but far more irresistible forces were about to strike Romania’s rural lifestyle.

Many people who had lived largely cash-free by subsistence farming learned about consumer goods and a more modern lifestyle from the suddenly omnipresent television, leading many to go abroad in search of paid work. This money, plus ludicrously generous and unchecked EU agriculture grants, led to many older houses being demolished and replaced by ugly new piles, ruining the traditional vernacular appearance of many villages. Meanwhile the villages were dying as young people left, while EU-inspired regulations aimed, for instance, to end traditional cheese-making and remove horsecarts from the roads. Even in 2015 shepherds were protesting in Bucharest against proposed restrictions on the number of dogs they can have with them and, ludicrously, to stop them grazing at all from December to April.

Rural tourism was an obvious way to bring cash into the villages and keep people on the land; but with a government interested only in beaches, skiing and Dracula tourism, it was left largely to foreign NGOs to put together networks of guesthouses and help owners bring them up to acceptable standards. The OVR took an early lead, together with the Mihai Eminescu Trust, formed to support dissident intellectuals, which had then joined the fight against systematization. Prince Charles entered the fray again, both as the MET’s patron and buying and restoring houses himself. The Lutheran church, with German support, has worked hard to save the Saxon fortified churches and opened guesthouses in parish houses, while the Transylvania Trust and various Hungarian bodies did a fantastic job at Rimetea, turning back the tide of modernization and creating delightful guesthouses, now serving as a model for other projects. ADEPT, working to preserve Transylvania’s landscape and biodiversity, was involved with local tourism projects, while the Association of Ecotourism in Romania also has a few guesthouses among its members, together with various hiking and horseriding agencies. However, much is being achieved by individual foreigners (often Dutch, for some reason), settling in a village and catalysing its revival with projects for campsites, authentic jams and the like.

Pisa and Lucca

Florence is absolutely wonderful, of course, but it’s also insanely crowded, and to get a better taste of the real Tuscany you need to go somewhere a bit quieter. Pisa is also ridiculously busy by day, but less so by night, and of course it’s well worth a visit anyway. The street on the south side of the duomo, baptistery and leaning tower is now selfie avenue, and thankfully it’s now closed to motor traffic, otherwise there’d be constant accidents. I found it quite entertaining (briefly) trying to take photos of rows of people being photographed holding up some random bit of sky. The area is also busy with Africans selling watches – how do they make a living?

In fact quite a few of Pisa’s sights were closed for refurbishment, most notably the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which closed in 2014 and won’t reopen before 2018 – this houses many of the treasures of the cathedral (mostly sculptures, communion vessels and other liturgical objects); in the Camposanto the room with the paintings by the Master of the Triumph of Death was also closed. We noticed that many of the stunning carved Renaissance pulpits here and elsewhere in Tuscany were being restored – mostly hidden away behind wooden hoardings bearing images of the pulpit, but that’s a poor substitute. The museums that are open could do with improving their English translations.

The good news is that the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo (8am-1.30pm Sunday, to 7.30pm other days; €5), down by the river at Piazza San Matteo, is delightfully unvisited, an absolute haven from the bustle around the leaning tower. In a 13th-century Benedictine nunnery, it houses many treasures from the Pisa area’s churches, notably 12th- to 14th-century paintings by Lippo Memmi, Fra Angelico, Taddeo Gaddi, Gentile da Fabriano, Ghirlandaio, Masaccio and Simone Martini. There’s also a fine collection of 14th- and 15th-century Pisan sculpture, including pieces by Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni, Andrea Pisano and his son Nino, Francesco di Valdambrino, Donatello and Michelozzo, and terracottas by Andrea della Robbia.

Some practicalities – Pisa

The railway branch from Pisa station to the airport (the busiest in Tuscany) has been ripped up and is being converted into the high-tech PisaMover automatic shuttle – it closed in December 2013, supposedly for two years, but when we were there in April 2016 the new tracks had yet to be laid and re-opening had been put back to December 2016. It may be open by the time I post this but I wouldn’t bet on it. While it’s closed your PisaMover service is actually a bus shuttle from the rear of the station (a longish walk – every 10min 6am-midnight, €1.30 in advance or €2 from the driver). In any case it’s often better to take the regular Lam Rossa buses from the airport which will take you closer to where you actually want to go.

 Accommodation in Pisa

We were lucky enough to find a fabulous, spacious apartment (for six) with a garden just a stone’s throw from the leaning tower. The owner Gabriella was very helpful and it was easily accessible from the airport by bus.

The 13th-century mosaic of Christ in Majesty, San Frediano, Lucca

LUCCA

Lucca, a short hop north of Pisa, really is more peaceful, although it has treasures of its own. Its Renaissance walls (finished in 1650, too late to ever be attacked) are still intact, with a largely traffic-free centre inside them, with lots of relaxed cyclists; they now make a delightful 4km circuit on foot or bike. At the heart of the old town is the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, an oval space on the site of the Roman amphitheatre; it’s ringed by medieval houses, but at their rear you’ll see fragments of Roman stonework incorporated in the later buildings. In addition to the duomo (cathedral) there are several other Romanesque churches that are well worth lingering in – San Michele in Foro and San Frediano are particular favourites.

Diagonally opposite Puccini’s birthplace (Corte San Lorenzo 9) is the relatively new Puccini Museum (March–April & Oct-Nov 10am-6pm daily, May-Sept 10am-7pm daily, Nov-Feb Wed-Mon 10am-1pm, 3-5pm; €7). The Puccini family were the cathedral organists for at least five generations before Giacomo achieved global fame for his operas. The lesser-known composers Boccherini and Catalani were also born in Lucca.

Lucca also makes a good stop on a couple of long-distance hiking and cycling routes. It’s hoped that the Via Francigena, following the medieval pilgrim route to Rome, will rival the Camino de Santiago as a long-distance challenge. A cycle/pedestrian bridge has been built across the Serchio river on the north side of Lucca, and seems a typical European project, left half-finished for a couple of years then very underused, being of little use to anyone except the few tackling the Via Francigena. A more popular cycle route leads west from Lucca to the sea along the river, and also inland towards the 15/16th-century Villa Reale, Villa Mansi and Villa Torrigiani, set in magnificent gardens.

 Some practicalities – Lucca

The area of the current bus station, just inside the Porto Vittorio Emanuele, is rather tatty and there’s a plan to move the buses to the railway station, which would make a lot of sense. LAM buses link Lucca with Pisa and also the airport – the fare is just €3, but be aware that the last buses leave early, ie mid-evening.

The Lucchese are known for being conservative, and tight with their money, and they stick to the typically meat-heavy Tuscan diet as far as possible – a fine Sicilian restaurant was able to survive only if its menu was half Lucchese. Lots of Lucca’s cooks are in fact Sri Lankan, immigrants who started as dishwashers and worked their way up, while the African immigrants are still selling sunglasses (but unfortunately they’re learning the Tangier patter, ‘Hi, where are you from?, to draw potential buyers in). One excellent restaurant is Canuleia Trattoria (via Canuleia 14), with tables in a nice garden; it’s also worth heading a few kilometres west on the riverside cycle route for the workers’ lunch at Alla Cantina del Carignano (Via Per Sant’alessio 3680, Carignano). The best (organic) ices are at Gelateria Grim on the main street (via Fillungo 56). The ‘Chicken Bar’ (you’ll understand when you see it) on the north side of the San Michele church is one of the town’s few late-evening bars; it’s also known as Il Peschino (after an alcoholic peach drink) or the Caffé del Mercato.

Accommodation in Lucca

We stayed with friends who are now offering accommodation through AirBnB. Their lovely home has been a labour of love. Elegant, comfortable and spacious. I cannot recommend it too highly and, in particular, I loved the location – it’s hugely convenient for the town itself and for doing the circuit of the city walls on foot or by bike. If you get the chance to eat with Carol, then take it! She’s a great cook and David is an attentive host. I hope to bring my mother there next year.

Some Transylvanian villages

As I said in my previous post, here are details of some Transylvanian villages that didn’t make it into the latest edition of the Rough Guide to Romania.

Around Braşov –

MOECIU

There are more authentically rural places just southwest of Bran in Moeciu, all very clean with lots of stripped pine and big breakfasts.

 Moeciu de Jos (Lower Moeciu) Pensiunea Liliana Urzica, no.433; 0268/237 233, 0745/867 168, liliana_urzica@yahoo.com, pensiunea-urzica-liliana.ro. With 16 rooms in old and new blocks, this is a friendly place with simple comfortable rooms. €18

Pensiunea Mariana Olteanu, Str. Cheia 427A; 0268/419 477, 0745/091 164, cheilemoeciului@brasovean.ro. Comfortable rooms in a traditional wooden house and a larger new block, 2.5km up the valley from where the buses terminate at km105. €15

 Moeciu de Sus (Upper Moeciu) 

Vlahia Inn, Str. Principala 21A; 0747/118 311, vlahiainn.ro. A friendly place where a good buffet breakfast fuels you for hiking in the Grădiştea valley; in winter there’s also a  skating rink across the road. €31

FUNDATA

Atop the spectacular Bran or Giuvala Pass (1290m), 14km south of Bran, FUNDATA is one of the highest villages in Romania, and is served only by occasional Braşov–Câmpulung buses. Little more than a scattering of small farmhouses, with a few new guesthouses, it hosts the popular Mountain Festival (Nedeia Muntelui) over a weekend in late August or early September. The underlying purpose is to transact business: exchanges of handicrafts, livestock and (formerly) of pledges of marriage. Straddling the border between Transylvania and Wallachia, the Festival was important as a means of maintaining contacts between ethnic Romanians in the two provinces.

SÂMBĂTA MONASTERY

Sâmbăta de Sus, 18km southwest of Făgăraş (and not served by buses), is known as a gateway to the Făgăraş mountains and for the Sâmbăta Monastery, founded in 1696 by Constantin Brâncoveanu, which houses a famous collection of icons painted on glass, as well as old books, parchments and vestments. The monastery is actually 9km south of the village (and 8km east of Victoria) in the so-called Sâmbăta Climatic Resort, a random collection of guesthouses and a busy restaurant (complexsambata.ro), as well as a ski skope and ropes course. The asphalt ends here, with a forestry road continuing south, marked with red triangles that lead up to the Valea Sâmbatei hut (3 hours hike) and a path on to the main ridge of the Făgăraş massif (another 2 hours).

 Accommodation

Pensiunea Belmonte, 0722/256 274; 0723/311 132, belmontesimbata@yahoo.com belmontesambata.ro. An excellent guesthouse near the monastery, with 8 attractive ensuite rooms and access to the kitchen and a barbecue in the garden. €22

Pensiunea la Nise, no.529A; 0745/369 312, pensiunealanise.ro. In the village of Sâmbăta de Sus (just southwest of the centre), this has spacious rooms and a garden with trampoline, bikes, table-tennis and other facilities for an active holiday.  €22

Pensiunea Royal Garden, Str. La Remu 515; 0761/123 169,  0742/880 394, pensiune-royalgarden.ro. This is a friendly place with good food in a very quiet location 1km north of the monastery (not easy to find at first). €22

ZÁLANPATAK (cut from the account of Micloşoara/Miklósvar)

Count Kalnoky also manages Prince Charles’s lovely house in the tiny village of Zalánpatak, in the middle of nowhere between Sfântu Gheorghe and Baraolt, where the forests are full of bears and other wildlife.

CLOAŞTERF

The next village along the E60 from Criţ (2km to the left) is CLOAŞTERF (Klosdorf), where many houses have been restored with funding from the Mihai Eminescu Trust. Within a simple square wall in the centre of the village, the church is a modest Saxon construction finished in 1524 and with three of its four original towers remaining – the freestanding bell tower, meanwhile, dates from 1819. Ask for the key at no. 99, about 200m back down the road near the entrance to the village.

Around Sibiu –

SLIMNIC AND OCNA SIBIULUI

The main road south to Sibiu (DN14) passes through rolling hills and orchards, and more Saxon villages, notably Slimnic (Stolzenburg; 17km north of Sibiu), which is interesting because the church, begun in 1450, was never finished, but the ruins of a substantial fortress around it survive. Along the railway, slightly to the west, there’s little worth stopping for other than OCNA SIBIULUI (Salzburg), a bathing resort with fizzy, very salty water, which bubbles up in four lakes formed in abandoned salt-workings.  They’re very popular, especially on summer weekends, but facilities are still fairly simple, with basic changing rooms. The nearest train stop to the spa is Băile Ocna Sibiului, 2km north of Ocna Sibiului station proper, with a decent campsite adjacent. Just beyond the Ştrand complex is the stunning Helios complex, built in 1906-9 in Secession style, recently refurbished but not currently open; Strada Băilor continues west to the centre of the village, where there’s a walled church (1240-80) now used by Hungarian Calvinists, an Orthodox church rebuilt by Constantin Brâncoveanu in 1695, and a standard Habsburg Catholic church completed in 1747.

The Helios complex at Ocna Sibiului

 Arrival

By bus: Buses from Sibiu to Ruşi pass through Slimnic after 20 minutes (15 Mon-Fri, 3 Sat, 0 Sun). Buses from Sibiu to Ocna Sibiului take 40 minutes (9 Mon-Fri, 2 Sat, 0 Sun).

By train: Trains call at Băile Ocna Sibiului.

Destinations: Copşa Mică (6 daily; 50min); Mediaş (5 daily; 1hr 15min); Sibiu (7 daily; 20min).

 Accommodation 

Casa Verman, Str. Băilor 22; 0269/541 219, 0756/151 569, casaverman@yahoo.com casaverman.ro. Between the pools and the village, this is a modern guesthouse with a decent restaurant. €27

Complex Balnear Ștrand, Str. Băilor 26; 0269/541 473, ocnasibiului.eu. At the spa’s main crossroads, this includes the comfortable Hotel Ştrand as well as camping chalets. Price includes access to pools. €47

Pensiunea Negrone, Str. Eminescu 4; 0269/541 056. At the main crossroads, a striking building built around 1900 houses a retro guesthouse with four ensuite rooms on the first floor and 5 with shared bathrooms on the top floor. €16

CISNĂDIOARA

From central Cisnădie, it’s a 3km walk west along Str. Măgurii and the valley road towards the striking 70m-high rock that looms over CISNĂDIOARA (Michelsburg). Crowning the summit of the hill is a tiny Romanesque church, built in 1223, which frequently withstood Tatar attacks; the villagers defended it by hurling down rocks which had previously been carried into the citadel by aspiring husbands, the custom being that no young man could marry until he had carried a heavy rock from the riverbed up the steep track. The interior is bare save for a tiny stone altar, but the views over the 2m-high ring wall to the snow-streaked peaks of the Făgăraş mountains are superb. The stiff fifteen-minute climb to the church begins from the crossroads in the centre of the village – someone should in theory be present to collect the €2 fee between 10am and 6pm daily, but if not (and the gate is shut), go to house no.246 or call 0269/564 332. Organ recitals and other concerts take place in the Baroque Lutheran church in the village at 5pm on Sundays in July and August.

 Arrival

There are five buses a day (Mon–Fri only) from Sibiu; otherwise it’s a 2km walk from where buses terminate in Cisnădie.

 Accommodation

Camping Ananas, Str. Pinului; 0269/566 066, 0741/746 689, ananas7b.de. Under 1km west of the central crossroads, this lovely campsite is geared up for campers (€6) and caravans (€8) but also has space for tents (€2), as well as chalets (from €12 for 2), wooden cottages (from €28 for 2) and three rooms.

Pension Subcetate, no.252; 0369/596 051, 0740/220 035, sub-cetate.ro. In the centre of the village, just down from the path up to the church, this is a lovely, homely place with bright a/c rooms and traditionally painted furniture, it also has a good restaurant (Tue-Sun noon-9pm).

RĂŞINARI

From Sibiu, hourly buses trundle south for 12km to RĂŞINARI, a tight-packed village with a painted Orthodox church built in 1752, and an ethnographic museum (Tues–Sun 10am–5pm), showing the usual range of local costumes and pottery. It’s known to Romanians as the birthplace of the anti-semitic prime minister and poet Octavian Goga (1881-1938) and of the nihilist philosopher Emil Cioran (1911-95), whose view was that the only valid thing to do with one’s life is to end it, although he never quite brought himself to do this. Another noted philosopher, Constantin Noica (1909-87), spent the last years of his life in nearby Păltiniş, removing himself as far as possible from Ceauşescu’s Romania but never quite bringing himself to repdudiate it. There’s an enjoyable Cheese and Ţuica Festival here in late August.

 Accommodation

Pensiunea Benderfeanu, Str. Crucii 1611; 0269/557 292, 0743/657 093, bendorfeanu@yahoo.com cazarerasinari.ro. There are many decent guesthouses along the main street, Strada Goga, but this one is just off it at the northern end of the village; as well as a large garden with paddling pool and gazebo, it has 7 spacious rooms and a restaurant. €18

Curmatura Stezii, DJ106A km16; 0269/557 310, curmaturastezii.ro. This former hikers’ cabana, just below the hairpin bends on the road up to Păltiniş, is now a modern guesthouse, but it still has dorms in addition to comfortable rooms and wooden chalets (€13). €22

MIERCUREA SIBIULUI AND CÂLNIC

Road and rail are reunited at MIERCUREA SIBIULUI (Reussmarkt), a village whose name derives from the Romanian word for Wednesday, the traditional market day here. In the centre of the village is a small, well-preserved thirteenth-century basilica, fortified during the fifteenth century, with food stores on the inside of its oval ring wall. In CÂLNIC (Kelling/Kelnek), about 8km west on the DN1/7 and 3km south (from near the Cut train halt), a massive keep and a very simple Romanesque chapel, both built around 1300, are enclosed within one-and-a-half rings of walls that resisted several Turkish sieges. Unusually, the castle was sold to the villagers in 1430, and has recently been restored and opened to visitors, with a small museum in the chapel.

In Gârbova, on a back road between Miercurea Sibiului and Câlnic, the Dutch-owned Urwegen guesthouse and Poarta Oilor campsite, with kitchen and swimming pool, is at Str. Eminescu 573 (0258/748 001, 0748/532 978, guest-house-urwegen.com; €35).

SEBEŞ

The town of SEBEŞ grew up on the proceeds of the leather-working industry, trading mainly with Wallachia; as Mühlbach, it was the capital of the Unterwald, the westernmost zone of Saxon settlement, and the German street names have recently been resurrected. In 1438, a Turkish army demanded the town’s surrender; a number of inhabitants barricaded themselves in one of the towers of the citadel, which the Turks stormed and burned. The only survivor, a student aged 16, was enslaved, escaping twenty years later to write a best-selling exposé of the bogeymen of fifteenth-century Europe. The Student’s Tower (also known as the Tailors’ Tower), at Str. Traian (or Parkgasse) 6, is thus one of the town’s main sights, although it’s not actually open. Immediately north of the town you may glimpse the dramatic Red Cliffs (Râpa Roşie; rapa-rosie.ro), now a natural reservation.

Evangelical Church

Tues–Sat 10am–1pm & 3–5pm, Sun 3–5pm

The large Lutheran Church in the centre of town was built in Romanesque style between 1240 and 1270, with a disproportionately large and grand Gothic choir added by 1382, followed by the upper part of the tower in 1664. The choir boasts Transylvania’s best Parleresque statues, and a large polychrome winged altar dating from 1518. The cemetery chapel on its north side, built in 1400, is now used by the Uniates.

Muzeu Ioan Raicu

Str. Mihai Viteazul 4; 0258/735 240, cclbsebes.ro; Tues–Fri 8am–4pm, Sat & Sun 10am–4pm; €0.50

In the late fifteenth-century House of the Voivodes on the north side of the main square is a museum featuring displays on Roma, Saxon and even African ethnography; the art collection includes works by Sava Henţia, born in Sebeş in 1848.

 Arrival

By train The train (Sebeş Alba) and bus stations are just east, in the new town. Note that if you’re travelling the few kilometres north to Alba Iulia, you’re best off catching a bus, saving the lengthy wait for a train connection at Vinţu de Jos.

Destinations: Deva (3 daily; 2hr); Sibiu (6 daily; 1hr 30min-2hr 20min).

By bus Conveniently placed between two junctions on the new A1 motorway, Sebeş sees a lot of buses to Western Europe (mainly Germany).

Destinations Alba Iulia (1/2 hourly); Bucharest (5 daily); Câmpeni (2 daily); Cluj (12 daily); Deva (3 daily); Sibiu (12 daily); Timişoara (2 daily). Germany (several daily).

 Accommodation, eating and drinking 

Clasic, Drumul Sibiului 15; 0258/733 016, 0358/401 567, hotelclasicsebes.ro. Just east on the DN1, this well refurbished place has tidy air-conditioned rooms and a decent restaurant; get a room at the back, as the main road and bar terrace can be noisy.  €40

Karlhof, Str. Şurianu 30; 0735/275 463, karlhof.ro. Immediately south of the centre, this late-19th-century villa is now a stylish little hotel and restaurant; some rooms have smart showers with hydromassage plus the music and lighting of your choice.  €62

Leul de Aur, Str. Blaga 8; 0258/734 500, 0358/401 510  hotelleuldeaur.ro. At the rear of a shopping gallery and up two flights, this is nevertheless a very comfortable hotel, particularly in the new 4* wing. There’s a busy bar and restaurant, as well as a self-service buffet.  €40

La Dolce Vita, Str. Vânători 5; 0258/733 470, 0358/401 223, ladolcevita-rist.ro; Tues-Sun noon-midnight. A decent Italian restaurant and terasa, with a full menu of antipasti, pasta and pizza plus a salad bar, near the bus station.

Michelle Ma Belle, B-dul Blaga 7; 0742/780 641, michelle-ma-belle.ro; daily 9am-9pm. On the main road between the church and the station, this is a good cofetărie that also serves ices.

The Székely Land –

THE HARGHITA MOUNTAINS

In the hills to the east of Odorheiu nestle several low-key resorts that are known for their mineral springs and hiking and mountain-biking opportunities (though not in winter, when this is the coldest part of Romania). The road towards Miercurea Ciuc passes through Satu Mare (Máréfalva), renowned for its carved wooden Székely gates, BĂILE HOMOROD (Homoródfürdó), where you can bathe in hot pools, and VLĂHIŢA (Szentegyházasfalu), which also has mineral springs as well as a campsite. From the pass about 13km beyond Vlăhiţa a poor road leads 4km north up to HARGHITA BĂI (Hargitafürdó), a spa and local ski resort in the thickly forested Harghita mountains, renowned for their wildlife.

 Arrival

There are eleven buses a day (eight on Sundays) between Odorheiu Seuiesc and Miercurea Ciuc, plus 12 (Mon-Fri) from Odorheiu as far as Vlahiţa. Harghita Băi is reached by two buses a day from Miercurea Ciuc rail station, or it’s less than an hour’s walk from the turning.

 Accommodation

Băile Homorod

Lobogo Panzió, 0266/247 545, 0747/119 590, lobogo.ro. A modern resort with indoor pools, spa, restaurant and rooms (10 doubles, 4 suites, 3 dorms and 7 heated chalets). Horse-riding and other summer and winter activities are available. €30

Harghita Băi

Pethő Panzió, 0740/354012 pensiuneapetho.ro. An upmarket guesthouse at the top of the ski slopes, with wonderful views and 16 ensuite rooms, sauna and spa. €55

UZ Bence Hostel, 0745/629 337, 0745/629 337, uzbence.ro. A solid wooden building with ensuite rooms for between two and five people, with a cheery bar, restaurant and sauna. €8/p

LĂZAREA

The village of LĂZAREA (Szárhegy), 6km north of Gheorgheni on the DN12 (one stop by train), is worth a visit to see Lazar Castle, just below the Franciscan monastery whose white tower is visible from passing trains – it’s famed as the childhood home of Prince Gábor Bethlen at the end of the sixteenth century. In 1631 a fine Renaissance hall and frescoed facade were added to the fifteenth-century castle, but it was largely destroyed by fires in 1748 and 1842. The frescoes in particular have been gradually restored by artists who hold a summer camp here each year. The castle gallery (Tues–Sun 9am–5pm) exhibits their work, and there is a display of sculpture in the village’s central park, open all year. On a hillock just to the east the walled village church sits just above the road leading up to the monastery.

Lazar Castle

 Arrival

Ten local buses come from Gheorgheni daily (Mon-Fri; to Remetea) in addition to the buses to Topliţa and beyond. The train station is just southwest of the centre, with four trains a day to Gheorgheni and Topliţa, two continuing to  Târgu Mureş.

 Accommodation

Fenyő Panzió, Str. Gurzok 622; 0744/399 142, 0723/674 210, pensiuneafenyo.ro. A big modern block east of the centre, this is the grandest place here, with a nice terrace and restaurant and  pleasant rooms with all comforts plus six suites. €35

Katalin Panzió, no.1255; 0266/325 775, 0721/445 836, casa.de.oaspeti.katalin@t-i.ro. A friendly family house with simple rooms and a pleasant garden, one of a network set up by Operation Villages Roumains. €18

CERNAT DE JOS

Haszmann Pál Museum of Szekely Life and Culture, Cernat de Jos no.330; 0267/367 566 haszmannpalmuzeum.ro; summer Tues-Sun 9am-5pm; winter Tues-Fri 9am-4pm, Sat/Sun 9am-2pm

It’s well worth a detour to the Museum of Székely Life and Culture, 10km down the Braşov road from Târgu Secuiesc and 3km north to the end of CERNAT DE JOS (Alsó-Csernáton): take the road signposted to Cernat de Sus, and fork left just beyond the church. An old manor house displays excellent collections of wooden implements, cast-iron stoves, painted wooden dowry chests (from the 17th century on), textiles and costumes, ceramics and old radios; unfortunately, information is in Hungarian only. A number of village houses have been moved here, including a couple built in 1690 and 1790, and some fine carved beam gates, the oldest dating from 1761, as well as a water-mill and some farming implements. If you want to stay over, the museum has a couple of rooms, and there’s a guesthouse at no.1015.

 Arrival

Five buses run from Târgu Secuiesc to Cernat de Sus on weekdays; the last returns at 1.30pm.

South to Târgu Mureş

From the tiny junction of Deda the railway for Beclean and Cluj heads west, while the DN15 and a minor rail line lead south towards Târgu Mureş, a route marked at regular intervals by the castles of the Hungarian aristocracy that once ruled here. BRÂNCOVENEŞTI (Marosvécs), 13km south of Deda and served by slow trains only, is known for the fine Kemény castle (visible across the river from the train) dating from the fourteenth century and best known for housing disabled children judged too sick or traumatized to recover during Ceauşescu’s regime. The main town on this route, 10km beyond Brâncoveneşti, is REGHIN (Szászrégen/ Sächsisch Reen), best known for its amazingly successful violin factory, located here because of the wealth of fine sycamore (also known as flamed maple) in the Gurghiu valley. You can see their products (including violas and ‘cellos) at the Gliga shop at Str. Pandurilor 120 (0749/049 404 gliga.ro; Mon-Fri 8am-4pm). There’s also a large Saxon church at Str Călăraşilor 1, built in the 14th and 15th centuries and rebuilt after a fire in 1708 with an unusual double gallery.

From Reghin it’s 14km to GORNEŞTI (Gernyeszeg), where the Baroque palace of the Teleki family, which supplied many of Transylvania and Hungary’s leading statesmen, was built in 1771-8 by the Austrian architect Andreas Mayerhoffer, with a fine dendrological park around it. The palace served as a TB sanatorium under communism and was returned to the family in 2011; the current count is paying for its restoration by hosting weddings and other events, but visitors are welcome at other times (donations welcomed; 0757/779 649, gernyeszeg.com). The Teleki family had another kastely in Dumbrăvioara (Sáromberke), just 4km further south (and 12km from Târgu Mureş); built in the 1770s and reworked in Secession style in 1912, it also sits in a dendrological park next to the Calvinist church that houses the tombs of 15 family members. It also served as a hospital and was put up for sale in 2015.

The main reason to stop in Reghin is for bus connections (from immediately outside the train station) to the traditional shepherding communities of GURGHIU, 14km east, and HODAC, 8km further. Gurghiu is known for its Girl Fair (Târgul de Fete) on the second Sunday of May, similar to that of Muntele Găina (see box). At Hodac, there’s a Measurement of the Milk Festival on the first Saturday of May, while the second Sunday in June sees the Buying Back of the Wives Festival, reaffirming the economic underpinnings of matrimony. Check event dates at the tourist office in Târgu Mureş. During the Festivals, special buses run from Reghin; at other times, both villages can be reached by buses bound for Dulcea and Toaca, while Gurghiu is also served by buses to Glăjărie and Orşova.

The Apuseni (western Transylvania) –

Just to the west of Buru, a road turns north to the tiny village of BĂIŞOARA, from where it’s 14km west to the single-slope Muntele Băişorii ski resort; here, you can stay at various guesthouses or the Băişoara cabana (0264/314 569). Continuing north from Băişoara, the road passes through SĂVĂDISLA (Turdaszentlászló), where the Tamás Bistro restaurant at no. 153 (0264/374 455, tamasbistro.ro) offers the best Magyar cuisine in the area, and finishes at Luna de Sus, just west of Cluj.

From Abrud buses run to BUCIUM POIENI, 13km east, the centre of a comuna of six small former mining villages; start here for an hour’s climb to two basalt towers known as the Detunata, which can also be reached by hiking (or cycling) east from Roşia Montană for 3 hours, following red cross markings.

Continuing south from Sâncraiu/Kalotaszentkirály it’s 4km to CĂLATA (Nagykalota) and another 5km to CĂLĂŢELE (Kiskalota), in both of which you’ll see carved wooden homesteads and on Sundays home-made folk costumes.

Sixteen kilometres beyond (connected to Huedin by three buses on weekdays) is BELIŞ (Jósikafalva), a village moved (along with its lovely wood church) from the valley when the artificial Lake Fântânele was created; there’s now a small lakeside resort comprising two identical two-star hotels (both 0264/354 183), and various guesthouses.

MĂNĂSTIRENI, VĂLENI AND FILDU DE SUS

MĂNĂSTIRENI (Magyargyerómonostor), on a minor road running south from the DN1 east of Izvoru Crişului and Huedin, has a lovely thirteenth-century walled Calvinist church whose gallery, pews and ceiling were beautifully painted in the eighteenth century. Just west is Văleni (Magyarvalkó), where many houses have decorated mouldings and the thirteenth-century Calvinist church has a wonderful hilltop setting and a collection of carved wooden graveposts, more typical of the Székely Land. In the valleys to the north of Huedin lie half a dozen villages with striking Gothic-inspired wooden churches – typical of those that once reared above villages from the Tisa to the Carpathians. The most spectacular, and the nearest to Huedin, towers over Fildu de Sus (Felsófüld), reached by a 10km track west from Fildu de Jos (Alsófüld) on the Huedin–Zalău road. Built in 1727, the church was painted in 1860, with scenes of Daniel in the den with some wonderful grinning lions. There’s one daily bus (at 5pm) from the railway crossing in Huedin to Fidu de Sus, and two to Zalău via Fildu de Jos, where there are guesthouses.

Northern Transylvania –

The small town of BECLEAN (Bethlen), 25km east of Dej, was the ancestral seat of the Bethlen family, which provided several distinguished governors of Transylvania. The road and rail routes to Vatra Dornei and Suceava in Moldavia also divide here, drivers heading east to Bistriţa while the train runs further north via Năsăud and Salva, also the route to Sighet in Maramureş.

[The Bethlen castle is in the centre of Beclean and worth a visit – I wanted to expand this coverage but instead virtually everything in this area around Bistriţa has been cut.]

COŞBUC AND NĂSĂUD

From Salva, 49km northeast of Dej, road and rail routes head north to Maramureş; 9km along this road is the village of COŞBUC, named after its most famous son, George Coşbuc (1866–1918), poet and activist for Romanian cultural revival. A couple of hundred metres north of a covered wooden bridge, his simple family home, built in 1840, is now a museum (Wed–Sun 9am–5pm; €0.50), with manuscripts, books and personal effects on display. Along the road to the north are several trout restaurants.

NĂSĂUD (Nussdorf), 6km east of Salva, is at the heart of a region where villagers still wear their traditional embroidered waistcoats and blouses, and hats topped with peacock feathers. A selection of these is on display in the Muzeul Grăniceresc Năsăudean in the 18th-century barracks of the border guards at B-dul Granicerilor 25 (complexulmuzealbn.ro; Tues-Sun Oct-March 9am-5pm, April-Sept 10am-6pm; €1). Just 5km south along the Bistriţa road is the birthplace of Liviu Rebreanu (1885–1944), whose novels Ion, Uprising and The Forest of the Hanged give a panoramic view of Romania before World War I; the simple shingle-roofed house is now a branch of the museum (no.126A; Wed-Sun Oct-March 9am-5pm, April-Sept 10am-6pm; €0.50).

The Bârgău Valley

Five buses a day head east up the valley to Vatra Dornei in Moldavia. The main railway route runs via Năsăud, just to the north, but there’s a branch line from Bistriţa as far as Prundu Bârgăului, from where it’s another 60km to Vatra Dornei, via the 1200m Tihuţa Pass. The scenery is dramatic, with huge hills draped in forests of fir trees, and villages that seem living monuments to a way of life unchanged for centuries.

 LIVEZILE

In Livezile, a long and attractive roadside village 8km from Bistriţa (local bus #3), the Muzeul Casa Sasească (Saxon House Museum; Wed-Sun April-Sept 10am -6pm, Oct-March 9am-5pm; €0.50), at Str. Dorolea 152, demonstrates a way of life that has not vanished further up the valley. Built in about 1870, the house has two large rooms, kept exactly as they’ve always been and stuffed with Saxon ceramics, folk dress, furniture, books and photos; out back there’s a large barn with several wine presses. To find the museum, head down the gravel path leading away from the roadside Lutheran church (the church key is at Str. Dorolea 197; 0263/270 109). There are now only half a dozen Saxon families left in the village.

 PIATRA FÂNTANELE

Climbing steadily eastwards, the DN17 (E576) reaches the scattered settlement of Piatra Fântânele, with the Hotel Castel Dracula at km108. Note that the map of hiking trails outside is incorrect; some trails don’t exist, while some that do aren’t shown. Just beyond lies the Tihuţa Pass, which may be blocked by snow for the odd day between late October and mid-May. Although the country is relatively densely settled near the main road, the surrounding mountains harbour more bears than in any other part of Europe, as well as red deer, boar and wolves; from the pass the view of the green ‘crests’ of Bucovina to the northeast and the volcanic Căliman mountains to the southeast is marvellous.

Florence – museums and much more

I visit Italy several times a year, but I’m normally stopping for one night in Courmayeur while leading hikers on the Tour du Mont Blanc. In the spring of 2016, however, I did manage to spend a couple of weeks in Tuscany and Umbria – we ate and drank (it’s easily the world’s best cuisine for vegetarians, in my opinion) and stayed in nice places, but this post is mainly about art and museums, and of course Florence is the world’s capital for these, with the Uffizi housing the world’s greatest collection of Italian Renaissance art. But there’s plenty of information on that in guidebooks and online.

In 2015 the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens were merged into one super-museum (with 3.4 million visitors and ticket revenue of €17.3 million per year); in 2016 the German Eike Schmidt was appointed as the first non-Italian director of the Uffizi, with a commitment to shake things up. Traditionally Italy’s leading museums were tightly controlled by the Ministry of Culture, but since the 1990s it has allowed private companies to provide various services, including putting on some temporary exhibitions, but while this did do something to open up the system’s sclerotic arteries it also introduced more conflicts of responsibility. Now the aim is to give powerful museum directors the chance to get a grip, but bureaucratic inertia and resistance are powerful. The single biggest challenge is being unable to freely recruit or dismiss staff – even persuading guards to rotate from room to room, rather than having a job for life in one favourite corner, involves tense negotiation with unions.

The Uffizi’s ticketing system is an unwieldy beast (I don’t have to tell you to book online in advance, I hope, rather than queueing for hours), but again private resellers and tour companies are keen to protect their profits from marking up the basic €8 cost.

Matteo Renzi was once mayor of Florence before becoming Prime Minster and trying to shake up the Italian state as a whole – alas, he resigned after losing a constitutional referendum in December 2016. Italian resident Tim Parks has written Italian Ways, a surprisingly fascinating account of the way the Italian railways are run, which serves as a template for Italian society as a whole.

One obvious fruit of the merger woud be to open up the the intriguing Vasari Corridor (built by Vasari in 1565), which leads at an upper level from the Uffizi, across the Ponte Vecchio, to the Pitti Palace. It houses a collection of over 700 self-portraits (by Titian, Carracci, Delacroix, Ingres, Sargent, Morandi, and more contemporary artists, as well as by female painters such as Angelica Kauffmann, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and the even less well-known Violante Beatrice Siries and Rosalba Carriera); only a few private tours companies currently have access it, and they are lobbying hard to keep their profitable venture for themselves. In any case it’s not the best place for paintings, due to the lack of temperature and humidity control, and Schmidt wants to move them to the main Uffizi building (where offices will be converted to galleries) and replace them with classical Greek and Roman inscriptions.

The Vasari Corridor and the Ponte Vecchio

While the Uffizi is swamped with visitors, the adjacent Bargello, renowned for its Renaissance sculpture and a great collection of Islamic art, is struggling to make people notice it; it recently merged with four smaller Florentine museums, which may either give it more visibility or dilute it. It too has a new director who has inherited a €2 million deficit and a museum without a proper catalogue database.

In more straightforwardly good news, two more of Florence’s museums, closed for many years, have reopened – the Museum of the Opera del Duomo, home to the cathedral’s greatest artworks, completed its refurbishment at the end of 2015. Housing the world’s largest collection of Florentine medieval and Renaissance sculpture, including a Michelangelo pietà, other works by Donatello, Andrea Pisano, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Luca della Robbia and almost seventy fragments from the cathedral’s lost medieval façade, it’s set to be one of the city’s unmissable sights (move over, Bargello). One €15 ticket covers the museum and all the other monuments around the duomo, such as the baptistry and campanile.

The Istituto degli Innocenti (Institute of the Innocents; daily 10am-7pm; €7), on Piazza Santissima Annunziata, was founded in 1445 as the first secular orphanage in Europe, and still works to protect children and families, with UNICEF’s research office based here. Brunelleschi’s building, one of the most important civil buildings of the Renaissance, with its two lovely cloisters, was closed from 2010 to 2016 for refurbishment. Luca della Robbia’s tondi of ceramic babies on the façade advertise the building’s purpose, and the building also houses an exceptional art collection on the first floor, including more works by Luca della Robbia plus Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Piero di Cosimo and many others.

The arcaded piazza itself is one of Florence’s more authentic and attractive. In the centre, the equestrian statue of Grand Duke Ferdinand I was Giambologna’s last work, cast from Turkish cannons captured at the battle of Lepanto. On the north side of the square, the church of the Annunciation was rebuilt by Michelozzo in the second half of the fifteenth century, but now has a heavily Baroque interior.

The Piazza Santissima Annunziata with Giambologna’s statue of Grand Duke Ferdinand I, the church of the Annunciation and Ithe Istituto degli Innocenti (right)

Also in June 2016, the historic Teatro Niccolini, the city’s oldest theatre, reopened after being closed for no less than twenty years. In other news from Florence, conservationists have finally figured out how to restore Vasari’s huge Last Supper from the Santa Croce church, badly damaged in the terrible flood of 1966; and McDonald’s is suing the city for €18m after the mayor blocked its plans for a ‘restaurant’ on the Piazza del Duomo (but one did open in December 2016 on Borgo Pio, just outside the Vatican in Rome, causing some minor scandal).

Look out for

Something to keep anyone young at heart amused, whilst seeing the sights in Florence, is spotting the plethora of defaced road signs by the French street artist Clet Abrahams.  He uses removable stickers and is tolerated, aided and abetted to various degrees by the authorities and his fans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Some practicalities

Florence’s orange buses are changing to a red and white livery; the blue buses are for regional services out of the city. Florence is a hub of Italy’s flashy high-speed train service, but it’s worth knowing about the far cheaper regional Roma-Firenze train which runs every two hours and calls at fascinating places like Arezzo and Orvieto; this is also the easiest way to transport bikes.

We enjoyed discovering Cedrata Tassoni, a local soda drink, launched in 1956 (although the company had been selling a syrup since 1793), that’s made from the oil of the citron, similar to a lemon (originally they used Citrus Medici from the shores of Lake Garda, now it’s Citron Diamante from Calabria). It comes in a cute little bottle with a surface like citron peel and no label (all information is on the lid). Perfectly small enough to take home in your hand luggage!!

You’ll hear that the favourite Florentine sandwich (sold from stalls on city squares) is made of lampredotto, often translated as lamprey – however this is nothing to do with the parasitic fish, but is actually the fourth and final stomach of a cow. Tripe more generally is also popular here, in the form of trippa alla fiorentina – and bistecca alla fiorentina (ie steak) is even more popular. The Florentines really aren’t particularly veggie-minded.

Speaking of sandwiches, tramezzini are not triple-deckers, as some people seem to expect, just normal sandwiches, though with the crusts cut off. We ate some fantastic arancini (stuffed rice balls, coated with bread crumbs and then deep fried, usually filled with ragù, mozzarella and peas, originally from Sicily) – and then came home to find that suddenly they were everwhere in Britain, including a wedding and at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen. Definitely the flavour of the month. The best place to buy them is Ará (via degli Alfani 127, on the corner of via Ricasoli) – it has great cannoli and gelato too.

However we did also find two excellent vegetarian restaurants, notably Brac (via dei Vagellai 18), a bookshop which suggests sharing plates of pasta, salad and a sort of wrap – service is a bit random (be sure to book) but the food is fantastic. There’s also Simbiosi (via de’ Ginori 56), where I was particularly amused by the pea hummus pizza (topped with mushy peas, basically), the range of craft beers and organic wines, and indeed the hip English-speaking staff. I was curious about how the concept of ‘Zero Kilometre food’ could work in a city centre, but apparently it actually refers to a radius of 70km. Weak marketing, I feel, but the concept is great, derived from the Slow Food movement founded in northern Italy 30 years ago.

 A gourmet haven down on the border of Umbria

We stumbled across Borgo Cenaioli, an Agriturismo enterprise 15 km from Perugia, in a 16th-century hamlet of just 12 inhabitants near Lake Trasimeno. We were the only diners so had the delightful courtyard to ourselves and were offered a set menu, which was adapted for the vegetarian amongst us. It’s also possible to stay there but we didn’t see the accommodation.  A perfect spot to get off the road, relax and eat well.