I now considered a return to Romania in order to fulfill the need for a new lecture subject. It would be an initial solo visit of six or seven weeks. My two recent journeys through that country followed by some study had aroused my interest in a country then little visited by western travellers. That it had a rural and colourful peasant culture I already knew and that its people were open and easy to approach I had recently experienced. Its political system, offensive to western travellers, may have deterred many and indeed in the earlier years of communist rule the Party discouraged international fraternisation. A law had been brought in which required every Romanian to report to the appropriate State authority any contact with a foreigner from a non-socialist country.
In spite of the ever watchful eye of the Securitate this ruling seemed to have been largely ignored for I was to enjoy many friendly contacts with the Romanian people. Politically too it was of some interest. Nicolai Ceauşescu had come to power as President of the Republic in 1965, described by the Ministry of Information as the greatest Romanian in history. He was to become the ultimate tyrant before being disposed of by his own people and executed, but at the time of this visit he was displaying a sturdy independence of the Soviet Union in foreign affairs while at the same time imposing on his own people a rigid domestic reign. Somewhere I had read Ceauşescu was walking a tightrope suspended between east and west. At Comecon meetings the Romanian delegation was often in opposition to the Soviet Union. This independence was to be fully demonstrated later in the year when Romania failed to participate in the occupation of Czechoslavakia.
I left England in mid-July driving fast across Europe in my Cortina Estate loaded with full camping gear and equipped with my Leica, a battery of lenses and a stack of Kodachrome. I entered Romania at Oradea and drove on to Cluj to meet the first of their important minorities, Hungarians. This was Transylvania, a much disputed territory with much ill feeling between the two races. Wherever the one or the other, Romanian or Magyar, was dominant they would discriminate against the minority. I travelled east through Sibiu and Braşov, two towns in what is called the province of Siebenbürger or the Seven Castles, occupied by people of another race, Germans; they call themselves Saxons and Swabians. They arrived here in the early Middle Ages to act as frontier guards. By their industry and clannishness the German minority came to dominate the trades. In later visits to Romania I was to explore other of their cities, among them Bistriţa and Sighisoara and while there, noted in both villages and towns that the buildings were cleaner and more sturdy; also that, unlike the Romanian houses which were spread wider apart, the German houses formed an unbroken line along the main street.
On this occasion I had little need to meet this German minority, nor did they take notice of an unusual British visitor. Perhaps this was to be expected. During the last war it is recorded that seventy thousand Saxons served in the S.S. rather than the Romanian army. Perhaps I am prejudiced but somewhere I read of an English lady, Emily Gerard, travelling two centuries ago writing of the spontaneous friendship and hospitality of the Romanian people but never to receive the smallest sign of courtesy from the Saxons.
The detailed journal I must have kept is now lost as are many of my memories of this first long introductory visit to Romania. In spite of the Party’s policy of restriction I must have met the same friendly curiosity as on my two earlier visits and I remember a postcard being furtively handed to me on which was written ‘Welcome from a lover of the English language’, and a lady who went to endless trouble to find me a pot of honey for which no payment would be accepted. At one of my campsites someone gave me a bottle of home made palinka, fearsome stuff, and he only left me when the bottle was nearly empty and he in a sorry state.
And so, still on the main asphalt road to Bucharest, I camped in the forest of Bãnasa, close to the airport and the zoo. At an earlier time in its history, Bucharest was called the Paris of the East (east of Europe of course). The only evidence of this I saw was on the drive to my camp site along the once famous boulevard Soseava Kiseleff where once the carriages of the wealthy must have passed on the way to the houses of pleasure. I could still see fine villas half concealed at the head of poplar-bordered drives, perhaps then the homes of important Party members.
Bucharest was dreary with empty shops, peeling facades, ill lit streets and graceless blocks of flats. It was in this city that I first began to recognise the price the Romanians were having to pay for Communist orthodoxy, which I learnt in discreet conversations with some of its citizens, who were eager to speak when unobserved by the ever watchful Securitate. They spoke of fatigue, long working hours, inadequate public transport, the daily chore of shopping, long queues, censored news, barriers to travel.
I did travel east to Constanta and north through the coastal resorts soon to offer cheap beach holidays for western visitors, but my main aim was much further north to Suceava and the painted churches of Moldavia. The journey took longer than I thought. You could not then make a hurried journey and such was the variety and richness of life along the way that to hurry would make it less rewarding. Ox and horse carts dawdled along the main road as if safely along a farm track, lorries in a varied state of decrepitude with much honking wove in and out, while flocks of sheep and goats grazed by the roadside watched over by peasant women or children.
Slowly and with many halts to photograph and delight the curiosity of the locals, perplexed at the sight of a foreigner in what to the peasant was a splendid car, I made my way to Suceava. This was the former capital of Moldavia, once an independent principality reaching its glory under Steven the Great. Steven is famous in Romanian history, not only for his resistance against the Turks but as a patron of the Orthodox church and the arts. It was under his reign and that of his son Petru Rareş there developed a remarkable culture, the finest monument of which are the painted churches and monasteries. To see these was the chief purpose my visit.
These masterpieces were created in the late 15th and 16th centuries and they remain today as Romania’s greatest achievement in art and architecture. Their most characteristic feature are the exterior paintings, the walls from ground to roof being covered in historical or biblical pictures. It must be remembered that at the time these were being built the ordinary peasant was not allowed inside a consecrated building and that it was a time of almost general illiteracy. These walls then were painted for the illiterate peasant, who couldn’t go into the church anyway, as an easy form of religious education, each wall being like an illustrated Bible open at several pages at the same time. Little is known about the artists but the paintings are still fresh after centuries of exposure.
I must have visited most of the painted monasteries over several years, Suceviţa, Moldaviţa, Humor, Putna, but of these Voronet remains the most outstanding, partly for its location. It is by itself above the village with no wall round it so it stands out against the forested hills behind. Its great splendour is the western wall with a magnificent illustration of the Last Judgement. At the time of my first visit to their monasteries I was made particularly welcome by the priests and nuns in their black habits, eager to show off their treasure to the rare western visitor. Later they were to become part of the officially designated tourist zone, patronised by the more discriminating visitor eager to escape from the package-holiday crowds at Mamaia on the coast. It is difficult to realise that when Sachaverell Sitwell visited Romania in 1937 you could travel by train to Constanta on the Black Sea but the last stretch of road linking the country with western countries had not been completed.
From Moldavia I was to drive over the Prislop Pass into what was to become my favourite corner of Romania, Maramures. Enter Maramures and you go back to the Middle Ages or earlier, a place seemingly bypassed by the main stream of human progress. This of course was 1968 when travelling tourists were a rarity and the arrival or a car, and a foreign one at that, was a matter for wonder. Of course there were towns such as Baia Mare and Satu Mare, each with some industry, but beyond these are only forests, mountains and rough roads. By risking my car on such tracks, and of this I was to have much later experiences, I was to come to villages in what seemed a state of medieval isolation. The houses were all wooden, each doorway and window frame richly carved. The fenced courtyard was entered by a roofed gateway which was the key to the owner’s prosperity. The larger and more elaborately carved the gate, the richer the owner.
All this I partly expected for I had read avidly of the little that was then available and in Bucharest and elsewhere had spoken with learned Romanians. What did give some surprise were the costumes, so colourful and rich, each the creation of hours of weaving and embroidery through the winter months. Nowhere else in Europe did folk costumes persist so strongly, best seen on Sundays and market days; I was then and on later visits to spend much time and film seeking to record the richness of the scene. The other glory of Maramures are the wooden churches. They are built without foundations, large solid blocks of wood are laid on a base of rocks and stones and dovetailed together. Why wooden one may ask when in neighbouring Moldavia churches are of stone, but here we are in an area once controlled by Catholic Hungarian overlords who forbade the Orthodox Romanians to build churches of stone.
Now as I write many years later and with faded memory, I wonder how I communicated with the peasants, friendly but of very basic education. Perhaps a village schoolmaster would be summoned who spoke as I did some elementary French! But communicate we did, once made necessary by finding myself with an almost empty tank. I had not seen a petrol station for several days, nor it seemed was there any on the way I wished to travel. Somehow it was conveyed to me that the daily bus would soon arrive and this would help, and help indeed was given. The bus driver or his mate simply syphoned a few litres of petrol into my tank and no payment would they accept.
And so with many good wishes and a well filled tank I left this living museum of peasant culture. Hungary was my next country, avoiding the fast route through Budapest but on minor roads to the Zempláne Highlands, minor volcanic hills now in late summer yellow with sunflowers. I was making for the sleepy little town of Tokaj, home of the world class ‘wine of kings’. I must have been in earlier contact for I was made welcome and taken into their cellars and I departed with dusty cobwebbed bottles of their product. Another year I was to visit Eger, famous for the red wine ‘Bull’s Blood’.
Fast driving then to Prague, capital of former Czechoslovakia, the one great city of eastern Europe that I had not yet visited. It was a time of significant political change. I was not to know it as I drove into the city that night but the day following, 21st August, was to be one of political tragedy.
Somewhere in the Old Town Square I found a modestly priced restaurant and was soon in conversation with English-speaking students all eager to speak of the recent and highly welcome reforms brought in by their new party leader Alexander Dubček. “We are still a communist country,” they said, “but the old hard liners are no longer in power; it’s communism with a human face.” I was left in no doubt that these reforms – no censorship, freedom of speech, freedom to buy western newspapers and freedom to travel – were all warmly welcome. “Enjoy our country,” they said as I left the restaurant with directions to the city campsite. “It’s near the airport, follow the signs.”
Indeed the campsite was near the airport for I was disturbed by unusual air activity throughout the night, the cause for which I learnt only as I joined the main road into Prague the next morning for I drove alongside a line of tanks of the Russian Red Army. All work had stopped and it seemed the entire population was in the street hurling abuse at the invaders. No witness of that tragic day in Prague, and no doubt throughout all other cities of the country, could have any doubt of the appalling shock and collective grief of the entire population. There were no happy faces now, no smiles, no laughter, the carefree mood of last night’s city was replaced by howls, curses, hisses and tears, only the passing of a truckload of flag waving demonstrating students caused the shaking fist to briefly wave instead. They were quite fearless those young men, the occasional rattle of automatic fire seemed only to spur on their hostile demonstration. Some were to die that day but so tense was the atmosphere, so bewildered and nervous were the Russians it seems now a miracle that the deaths were so few.
I stayed some hours in the streets of Prague and taking photographs of both Russian tanks and protesters, and some memories stand out clearly. There was the man with a bag already packed who begged me to take him out of the country and a weeping woman who clutched my arm and said ““tell England we want freedom.”” A helpful Czech guided me to the British Embassy to be met by a tearful secretary. A convoy of British cars was to be organised for that afternoon but I was not so anxious to leave. This was history in the making and I wanted to be involved. I spoke to many and took many photographs and later that night in Wenceslas Square I assisted in the distribution of hastily printed freedom leaflets.
The next day I started my home journey and back in Yorkshire was given some publicity and a TV interview.
(Note from Sylvie: there is additional material on Romania in George’s account of our motor tour in the 1970s and our canoe journey down the Danube in 1979-80.)