In Romania, as in every country, there are stereotypes about which places are worth visiting. If I tell people I am from Scotland many say they would love to visit Edinburgh but it is rare you hear people saying they want to see Glasgow, which is a more interesting city in many ways. When I travelled round India (20 years ago) everyone said I should avoid Calcutta (now Kalkota) as it is just a vast sprawling slum full of insolent Bengalis. But I found it to be the most compelling place in India.
In Romania they say you should visit Brasov and the fancy cities of Transylvania but avoid Moldova and the eastern part of Romania as it is poor and therefore of no interest to anyone. I was able to test this generality recently by travelling from Brasov to Botosani, from Transylvania to Moldova.
Although the centre of Brasov is nicely preserved and retains much of its Saxon charm, most of the town is just endless concrete blocks and the road out of town is crowded with huge advertising banners and retail sheds in garish colours. Romanians accuse gypsies of having no taste and painting their houses in kitsch colours; but they do it to their retail parks and new villas. Isn’t this a case of “the kettle calling the pot black”?
The road to Moldova takes you through some nice mountains and forest but the view is ruined by all the new villas that have popped up in unspoilt rural locations. These villas are owned by local businessmen who feel the need to flaunt their wealth by building grotesque constructions (which local architects call “original”) in garish colours, with stainless steel balconies, gold tinted windows, blue rooves, and all sorts of irregular angles. Romania had beautiful and subtle village architecture, using local materials, styles and colours but those Romanians who have money to burn seem to despise anything that is old or rural. I blame the architects (who blame the clients) but that is another story.
We cross over the Carpathians and get to the Moldovan city of Bacau. What a dump. If there was a league table of ugly cities Bacau would win every time. Brasov is like Vienna by comparison. Even the shop fronts seem to be done in the bad taste. Street after street of soulless concrete blocks, a sprawling industrial area (recently gutted by the slump) and if you pass through the city by train you are greeted by a apocalyptic rubbish dump.
Next stop was the small town of Roman, another historic Romanian city that has had its heart ripped out and replaced with concrete. But the local council have attempted to improve their image by painting the blocks facing the main road, a tactic that was first done in Bacau, and their choice of garish reds and yellows is all wrong. Like a drunk who has applied lipstick and make up, the results are absurd and laughable.
By now I was feeling depressed. What have they done to this beautiful country that has so many unique buildings in the villages? Why do they use such garish and loud colours and new building materials that remove the character of the building? And what was really getting me down was that even the villages had been ruined by this invasion of white PVC windows and tasteless colours.
Then we left the main road to visit a village on the other side of a forest. Soon the asphalt ran out and we passed through big fields where and dust was swirling around us. We were passing into the other Romania, the poor rural heartland. The village we reached was poor but beautiful, with original and interesting houses, each with its own garden and wooden fence. The streets were full of children, old men and animals and above them towered ancient trees. It was like stepping into a fairy tale. The families we visited had their own woodpiles and food supplies, but is is clear that their lives are very hard and the only real distraction is alcohol.
As we drove north to Botosani, I realised that one has to find the remote locations if you want beauty and tranquility in Romania. It seems that the further the village is from the asphalt the more unspoilt and attractive it is. The aesthetic problem with Romania is connected to money and roads. As the economy expands and people start making good money, often for the first time in their lives, they feel the need to show this wealth in the form of loud, garish houses. I assume this is something to do with the fact that most Romanians have never had money, and when they get it they spend it in ways that seem irrational to us privileged Westerners.
The other critical factor for Romania’s nouveau riche villagers is to build on the main road. Houses off the main road are worth a lot less. The result is what they call “ribbon development” — villages spread out over miles and miles of main road. Although this suits people who want to show their new found wealth to the world it means that these “main road villages” have no centre, no heart, and it makes no sense to provide utilities to such a scattered population.
There are some attractive cities in Moldova — such as Iasi and Suceava — but they weren’t on our route. I had never put Botosani on my list of attractive Moldovan cities but now I realise that there is something magical about this place. But this doesn’t make sense as Botosani is the ultimate provincial one horse town; small, parochial, industrialised and ugly. Even the people living there don’t seem to like it; I went to the bank to excha`nge money and there was a long queue of depressed looking people (you don’t see queues like this in Bucharest anymore).
But there is a lot more to Botosani than their empty factories and queues. This was a Jewish market town before the second world war, an important commercial centre, and it is the birthplace of Romania’s greatest cultural icons (Eminescu, Enescu, Iorga). Many Romanian cities have a small old centre which is surrounded by hectares of ghastly concrete blocks. What “makes” a Romanian city is what they do with the old centre. In Sibiu and Brasov they have restored them well, but there are plenty of Transylvanian cities that have failed to do this.
Botosani’s old centre really isn’t much to write home about, and it is occupied by Roma people which is of course unpopular with the majority population. The old centre is a building site, with a big EU subsidy sign but no sign of any work going on. But they have a couple of boulevard’s which are lined with old trees, and a smattering of old buildings, and this area gives off enough of an atmosphere to make the place rather attractive.
There is something about the centre of Botosani that is charming and exotic. It is hard to explain this feeling, which is very personal, but the trees, fresh air and people of Botosani makes me feel positive and energetic. I had a couple of meetings in town and everyone I met was so helpful. And its small size is an advantage when you’re trying to get things done as everything is close to each other and you can walk across the central area in about 10 minutes.
My conclusion is that the more remote and forgotten a town or village is the better it is. This is true from the aesthetic point of view — these places succeed at keeping out the kitsch — and also from the human angle; the more remote and unpopular a place is the more friendly the people tend to be. Ever since seeing the Romanian villages in 1990 I have wanted to live in one, but the problem is that what would I do? How could I make a living? We can enjoy these places from a superficial point of view but never really work out how to live there.