Beyond The Forest: Journeys to the Heart of Transylvania, Romania
Transylvania is a country of miracles, of legends, of strange tales, full of mystery. CJ Stone discovers scepticism and the Milky Way and meets a multi-armed goddess-tree with a macabre tale attached.
Romanian Arc de Triumph
"It's very surprising..."
Day One: Bucharest
We drove down the western side from Timisoara to Bucharest, in a Ford Focus diesel, in ten straight hours, along those cracked, battered, broken roads - overtaking everything that moved, swerving in and out of heavy traffic, with huge lorries coming at us flashing lights and horns - but it wasn't till I came to a door in a rambling, shady house near a park that I knew I'd arrived in Romania.
The house belonged to an opera singer. There was something powerful about her, Wagnerian even in her street clothes. She was more than a little daunting. And yet, when I came to the door and asked if I could use the loo, she said "please" and gestured me in.
A simple word that, "please". We use it all the time. But there was something new in it this time. The person speaking it actually meant it. It was said with a tone I'd never quite heard before, as if it was a translation and the original, in Romanian, meant something slightly different, something more gracious, something more at ease.
I guess that is what coming to someone else's country is all about. What you take for granted in your own country - the ordinary backdrop of everyday exchange - takes on a new meaning when it is filtered through the nap of another nation's cultural awareness.
In that moment I caught my first feeling of Romania, faint but distinct, like the smell of distant wood-smoke wafted on an autumn breeze.
I was being welcomed. There is no other word. I was being invited in, to see, to share, to dine, to taste, to toast, to laugh, to enjoy, but first of all, because I needed it, to use the toilet.
This was only one of the many Romania's I encountered on my journey: but it was the first, and because it was the first it allowed me entry into all the rest.
That "please" was a please of welcome that could easily last a lifetime.
The opera singer was Diana's friend. Earlier the three of us had gone for a walk in the park by the Romanian Arc de Triumph.
The park surrounded a lake. We walked around the lake to a coffee shop but the way was barred by a gate. I said, "Romania is closed for the day." It was our joke. Everywhere we went seemed to be closed. Afterwards we ate sweet cheese pie and Sarmale - mince wrapped in sour cabbage leaves - in a room full of paintings. The paintings were like eyes looking out into other worlds. We drank Tuica, the national spirit - a kind of plum brandy, with a distinct favour of fruit and mountain passes - with which we drank a toast to Romania, and to my time there. We clinked glasses across the table and raised a toast to anything and everything that moved.
Later we were going to meet Stuart, to start out on our journey into the mountains. Stuart was expecting us at three and, indeed, had phoned us to say he was waiting. But we carried on with our lunch in any case. We drank yet more toasts. I started to get worried.
"It's all right," said Diana, "we are waiting for a cab, but the point is, no one has actually called one yet."
She wasn't going to be rushed from lunch with her friend by the punctilious ravings of a paranoid Englishman.
"It's better when you steal time than when you actually have it," she said: "that way you appreciate it." And we drank yet another toast: a toast to time.
I'd met Diana a couple of days earlier, when I'd first arrived. She too has a mythic quality about her. Like her namesake, the Roman goddess, there's something of the huntress about her, a kind of elemental alertness, a dangerous passion. I must admit I took to her immediately. It's hard not to like someone with eyes that sparkle like sunlight in forest glades, who looks at you with such wry, quizzical humour, and who puts her arms through yours on your very first meeting, as you are going to the pub for a beer.
But I didn't sense the romance immediately. That took another day or two
And it is at this moment, perhaps, that we should pause to get a sense of the flavour of Romania, because it is very unexpected.
Squeezed between the Ukraine, Hungary, Bulgaria and Serbia, you would imagine it to be a Slavic country, but it's not. Its origins are given away in the name. It is a romance country, conquered by Trajan in 106 AD, and incorporated as part of the Roman Empire thereafter: it's language is closer to French or Italian than to Russian or Serbo-Croat. And in fact, romance is at its heart: a kind of mythic-poetic dreaming in the blood of the people, a kind of fertility of the soul.
Romance is the most important word in this story. It is the very meaning of Romania.
I'd been invited here by Stuart, the guy who was stuck waiting for us while we drank our toasts to time. He was a businessman working for an American company. He'd moved here about four years ago, had met and fallen in love with a Romanian woman, Aurelia, and had been raving about the country ever since.
"You've GOT to come here," he kept saying. "You've GOT to pay me a visit."
But for all that, he could never quite explain what, exactly, it was about the country that made it so appealing.
The next few days would begin to make it clear for me.
The drive down the western side, by the way, from Timisoara to Bucharest, with which we began our journey: that was Stuart driving. He didn't want me to mention the car as a Ford Focus diesel is not really his kind of vehicle. He prefers them hard and mean, soft-top, with a snarling engine and taught, muscular suspension. Nevertheless he was driving even this comfortable family saloon with gut wrenching intensity, swerving into the face of the oncoming traffic with a heart-stopping precision, testing the limits of this passenger's mental and emotional endurance.
I still have aching buttocks from all the clenching, and a bruised coccyx from being bounced up and down on those broken Romanian roads.
Namaiesti: Nobody here
A miracle. A sceptical interlude.
So now began our journey into the mountains.
I sat in the back with Diana, for two reasons:
1) I wanted to sit with Diana.
2) I couldn't face any more of Stuart's driving. Sitting in the back meant I could look somewhere else (at Diana for instance, or at the countryside) and that I had Aurelia in front of me as a sort of emotional, as well as a physical, cushion. She was used to it. She'd been living with Stuart for three years. She is hardened to his driving.
We were heading for Transylvania.
The name "Transylvania" means "beyond the forest" a phrase itself resonant with implied imagery. What forest exactly? Beyond where?
You are left with the picture of the primeval forest stretching out across central Europe, dark and impenetrable, at the far side of which - after a dangerous, life-threatening journey - this mountain fastness, with it's "other" civilisation. A distant place, another place, a place far beyond: not belonging to the familiar world of mundane reality on this side of the forest.
And indeed, travelling through those mountains your first impression is one of forests. Wild forests. Untamed forests. Old forests, dank and cold in the undergrowth, forests stretching to unimaginable distances, full of wildlife and danger.
And as it happens, this is exactly the case. There are wolves here. There are bears here. There are Lynx.
Almost 50% of Europe's bear population (around 6,000 animals) can be found in Romania. There are an estimated 3,500 wolves, 1,500 Lynx, as well as even larger numbers of deer, stag, wild boar, wildcats, stoats, badgers and foxes. This is a wild country. The Wild East.
It is also a country of deep superstition, in which the archaic forms of an Orthodox Christianity, like the roots of an ancient sacred oak, nestle down into the soil, feeding off the blood of a living paganism.
It is a country of miracles, of legends, of strange tales, full of mystery. Of the tears of the Virgin. Of caves. Of shepherds.
And this was the first place we visited, on the way up, nestled above a small, sleepy village, with strutting cocks and the smell of wood-smoke, a nunnery sacred to the Virgin Mary, called Namaiesti, in the county of ARGES.
"Namaiesti" is from the Latin and means "Nobody Here."
You go up a steep flight of steps, then through an elaborate, carved wooden gate, then more steps till you come to a small ledge on which is perched the nunnery buildings, and the cave around which they nestle.
It is the cave that is at the heart of the complex, with a small bell-tower on the top, and a brick and plaster entrance and a window, but nevertheless unmistakably a cave.
At the entrance to the cave is a carved stone, like a gravestone. There is a head with wings, eyes crossed, as if pressured by some weight from above, from which stretches a curved ladder. The ladder reaches up to a blazing panel like the sun, surrounded by laurel leaves, in the centre of which is an eye set in a triangle. At the bottom of the stone is a skull and crossbones.
People say it is the mark of the Illuminati, of "the Illuminated Ones".
After that you walk into an arched space carved out of solid rock. There is the sense of the weight of rock like a cold presence in the space, solid and unmoving, like the weight of history.
In the middle of the roof there is a natural funnel leading down from above, and, nearby, an elaborate, brass chandelier. Around the cave-room are carved wooden chairs and golden icons, peering out of the gloom like ghosts. There is a large altar filling the whole of one side, and, tucked away in a corner, a single icon, heavy with gilt, from which peers a dark, sad face. This is the face of the Virgin.
If you look closely you see that the painting is crying. Not figuratively: actually. There are salt-wet tears leaking from her eyes.
This is the miracle.
The nuns glide about like wraiths, not looking at anyone, wrapped up tightly in their wimples, long, black dresses sweeping the air around their ankles.
Eventually Aurelia asked one of the nuns to tell us the story of the place, and of the miracle.
This is the story as it was told to us by a nun with a pale face, tightly bound in a wimple, to Aurelia, and then translated for us.
The icon is a painting of the true face of the Virgin, as brought to Romania by one of Christ's disciples, we were told. It was very ancient. The disciple was told to bring it here, where he would meet with someone. However, when he got here, there was no one here. Hence it's name, "Nobody Here."
He discovered the funnel leading into the cave, and deposited the painting below. At the time the funnel in the roof was the only entrance.
Later - many centuries later - three shepherds were grazing their flocks upon these hills. Whether it was all at the same time, or at different times I cannot tell you now. But they fell asleep, and all had the same dream. The dream was that an angel told them they would see the true face of the virgin in this cave. So they lowered themselves down the narrow funnel into the cave where they discovered this painting.
Afterwards they dug out the entrance and made it into the shrine it appears today.
The icon is almost entirely covered in gold encrusted with precious stones. The face of the Madonna peers out from all of this burdensome gold, as if from a coffin. The nun told us that the gold was made up of all the melted jewellery left as offerings by pilgrims.
Afterwards the nun asked us what religion we were. Aurelia said she was Orthodox. Stuart said he was Orthodox, though I know he is a practising pagan. I found I couldn't say, as I've been all sorts of things in my day, and some more.
Afterwards Stuart told me that he respects the spiritual heart of all religions, and is therefore Orthodox in an Orthodox place.
It was then that Aurelia pointed out the salt-tears and kissed the glass face of the icon, and gave a little curtsey.
Suddenly I noticed that Diana wasn't with us, and looked around. She was sitting in one of the carved chairs with an angry look on her face. She got up and walked out and I followed her.
Outside I caught a glimpse of her eyes: they were blazing with a fierce scepticism.
I said, "you don't believe all this do you Diana?"
"No," she said, and in her eyes was a veritable storm of defiance.
I was almost knocked back with the ferocity of that look.
It was in that moment that I fell in love with Diana, utterly and uncontrollably.
Scepticism has always been my creed, but I had never imagined it could be so powerful, so full of fire.
In Romania, even scepticism is passionate. Even their scepticism is tinged with romance.
"The Dalai Lama told me to do it..."
It's at this point, maybe, that I should tell you about the people I am travelling with.
You've already met Diana. She has dark hair and green and golden eyes, like sunlight in a forest glade. She is thirty-something years old and fiercely independent, fiercely intelligent, fiercely proud, a formidable woman.
You've also been introduced to Stuart briefly. I described him as "a businessman". This was disingenuous of me. I was playing games with you. Stuart is a businessman in the same way that Buckingham Palace is a house: meaning he is a businessman only in his present avatar, and only on the surface. He is nothing like a businessman really.
He looks like a skinhead. He is big and broad-shouldered and visibly strong, covered in tattoos, but with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. There's a kind of strut to his walk, a swagger of defiance. His demeanour says "come on and get it if you think you‘re hard enough", while that twinkle says, "yes, but wouldn't you rather we just had a drink and a laugh?"
Actually he is something like a magician, and something like a king. A mage-king, you might say. He is a leader, a warrior, fearsome in battle, canny in strategy, astute, intelligent, watchful, motivated, who rules not by any external authority - by wealth or by privilege - but by the authority he draws from himself and by the loyalty he draws from other people.
Stuart makes his own reality. He embraces life in that big, warm-hearted sexy bear-hug and is not in the least bit surprised that life responds accordingly.
He is also outrageously funny.
On our first night in Romania we had all gone out to a club together. It was heaving with all the beautiful people of Timisoara, the model-girls and their paramours, short-skirts and bosoms, acres of bouncing, silicone-enhanced flesh, dancing to thumping house music. There were three floors, with a glass lift. We went to the top floor which was empty, so this old author could hear himself think. Eventually we decided to leave, as we had to be up in the morning for the long haul to Bucharest.
Stuart got in the lift first with Aurelia, and then, with a twinkle, promptly dropped his trousers to moon at the assembled dancers. "My arse has always wanted to be famous," he said.
Diana and I decided to walk down.
Afterwards Stuart said, "the Dalai Lama told me to do it."
"I don't remember the Dalai Lama ever telling people to show their arses in public," I said.
"No, the Dalai Lama said, ‘do one new thing every day, something you've never done before'. Well I've never shown my arse in a glass elevator before," he said. And he laughed uproariously.
Finally there is Aurelia, Stuart's wife.
Aurelia is a tiny little thing. To see them together is first of all to notice the contrast: this big, broad, swaggering man like a huge bear, and this minute body beside him, like a sinuous woodland creature, fragile and delicate, clinging to his side.
But if you think that Stuart has a large ego, you should measure it beside Aurelia's. Hers is a giant ego - the ego of secret awareness, of charm-weaving and magic, of the art of divination, of plant-whispering and hidden knowledge, of incantations and spells - all the more concentrated because it appears in such a small frame.
Aurelia is a witch. She has a thousand years of Romanian women's magic running through her veins. She knows stuff.
So that's it, the four of us in a grey Ford Focus diesel, sweeping up curved mountain roads, careering round blind bends, listening to loud disco music on the in-car stereo: a gorgeous passionate sceptic, a mage-king-businessman and a witch. And me, a befuddled writer with love on his mind.
It was getting late in the day by now. Night was starting to gather in the shadows of the trees. We were passing through all these rustic villages with Hansel and Gretel style fairy-tale cottages, like scenes from the Brothers Grimm, listening to Love Machine by the Miracles.
I'm just a love machine
And I won't work for nobody but you
I'm just a love machine
A hugging kissing fiend.
Every time it came on Stuart would start dancing the car across the road with the steering wheel, swerving it back and forth, right and left, while swinging his buttocks in the car seat.
Whenever I think of you
My mind blows a fuse
When I look in your eyes
My meter starts to rise
And I become confused.
Or he'd lick his fingers, taking his hands off the wheel, and place them on his nipples, while making this tsssss-ing sound, like the sound of red hot metal hissing on water.
My motor cranked electrocutes
When I'm sitting next to you
Electricity starts to flow
And my indicator starts to glow .
It's gonna be a hot-nipple party tonight in the mysterious Transylvanian mountains.
I'm just a love machine
And I won't work for nobody but you
I'm just a love machine
A hugging kissing fiend.
Stuart said, "you know what I like most about this? That I got it free with the Daily Telegraph. I wonder if the Daily Telegraph know what they were doing when they gave this away," and he swung the car in a swerve across the road again, just to scare the pants off me.
We were planning to stop quite soon.
Meanwhile I was cringing in the back seat, wondering what Stuart had in mind for the evening.
"It's all right Chris," he said. "I won't embarrass you. Or not too much."
Suddenly Aurelia cried out.
We'd just driven passed a small sign and she'd recognised the name.
It was the name of a cave that her daughter was due to visit the following week, on a school trip, so we turned around to go back. We had to find out about Anastasia's cave.
Crossing the border
The sign pointed to a canyon or a gorge at the entrance to which was a barrier and a small wooden hut. It was a national park. We had to pay to get in.
Actually that barrier, one of the hand-raised sort, painted in red-and-white stripes with a weight at the end, reminded me of a frontier crossing between borders, like the famous one which divided East Berlin from the West during the communist era, as a barrier between different political and economic systems, rather than just a barrier across a road. Which is what it was really. It was the frontier crossing of the border between different dimensions of reality.
So, now, we were driving down that gorge along a grit road, only just wide enough to take the car, with these stupendous, overhanging cliffs reaching up, glowering, looming, like hunched sentinels, with a rushing stream to one side, and the air was immediately cooler and damper and a kind of echoing hush descended, the sound of the car-engine all held in and enclosed, reverent as in a church, as if even the car knew this was a sacred place.
And crunching up that sacred road, the sound of grit under the wheels - having to draw to the side to allow the occasional car coming in the opposite direction to pass - and looking up out of the window at the narrow band of the sky, framed by the jagged rocks like solidified echoes, it was like I'd not just left England behind: I'd left civilisation behind, I'd left the world behind, I'd left myself behind.
Stuart saw a hole in the cliff and he pulled up in a parking space by the river and decided to squeeze in there.
Stuart is claustrophobic. It's his only real fear: fear of confined spaces. So the first confined space he sees he wants to enter it.
Me: I'm scared of heights.
So I ran - literally ran - up the dry bed of a stream, following the rocks and channels, up, up, clambering like a monkey, scattering grit and pebbles down the sheer face of the cliff, till I came to a point where I could get no further. And then I sat on a rock and looked down.
Whoosh. The ground below was looming close and then stretching away, like a zoom lens drawing in-and-out.
And now my heart was racing, with exaltation, with exhilaration, with blood-pumping fear, and I realised something I'd forgotten since I was a child: that it is danger that creates joy, that it is risk that creates pleasure, and that life is not worth living without all of these things.
So then I scrambled down - tentatively, on my backside - and we carried on. Stuart hadn't made it to his hole and I hadn't made it to the top, but we'd both tested our fears. Up the gorge, through a village where the gorge opened out a little, full of teetering wooden houses and some small hotels, some of them just in the process of being built, and further: until we came to the cave.
The cave was called Dumboricioara. I've spoken to Aurelia on the phone to find out what it means, but she's not able to translate. Something like "Little Forest" she tells me. A kind of shelter. A small forest that fairies might live in. Fairy-Woods or Fairy-Arbour maybe. Fairy-Glade. We are none of us sure.
So let's make a compromise, ok?
It was Anastasia, Aurelia's daughter, who found it for us.
We'll call it Anastasia's Cave.
We paid to get into here too - the Romanians are gratifyingly astute even about their sacred places - and a little girl offered to be our guide. Quite how this family and this little girl in particular managed to gain ownership of this hole-in-the-ground is another matter: but we were led into the cave and the lights came on with a bang. The little girl chattered happily with Diana and Aurelia. "Watch out," she said in Romanian. She was indicating the floor, which was slimy and treacherous, with the thin wrinkles of rivulets where water had run off previously. There had once been a walkway, made of pressed steel, but this was decrepit. Steel bolts jutted from the floor like spears. Stuart laughed admiringly. "This the Romanian attitude to health and safety law," he said. "I wonder what will happen now they have joined EU?"
Eventually the steel walkway recovered it's purpose and we were able to walk along it into the depths of the cave, which smelled of damp and urine, and dripped echoingly. There were stalagmites and stalactites. The dripping walls glinted in mineral colours.
So we went in to the depths of Anastasia's Cave and then came back out again.
Luckily no-one was impaled on a steel bolt from the floor.
We went back to the village. There were a number of hotels (hostels really). We tried the first, which had nice beds, but no food, and left the old lady who had shown us round pleading with us. "It's the best hotel," she was saying, "the best beds in the village." We went on to the next place, a restaurant, with food but no beds. Also Stuart was saying, "I want meat. I want a great big plate of meat. Just meat." So when we asked for meat at the restaurant and they said no, only fish, we went on to the next.
This one was called "Magic Dreams" and it had a set of stag's antler's above the bar.
"Do you have meat?"
"And can we play Love Machine on your stereo and go disco dancing all night?"
What more can you ask?
Deepest night in the mountains of God
So that's what we had: meat, beer, pickled vegetables, pickled mushrooms, baked cheese, corn hash, and more beer and more cheese (it was creamy and tangy, like a combination of Lancashire and feta, but with more bite, more pungency); and then yet more beer, yet more cheese, and yet more beer. Clinking glasses in the church of the sacred canyon, drinking to the health of the Lords of Rapture in the Night.
There was a taste in my mouth, and a smell in my nostrils that I'd never tasted or smelled before. Like wood-smoke. Like fruit. Like air. Like forests. Like water. Like all of these things but none of them in particular. Like bear's breath and wolves' fur. Like deepest night in the mountains of God.
After that we went for a walk, out of the village where the dogs barked, down the road to where the rushing waters sent the air scurrying, round the corner and over a bridge, so we could no longer see the lights of the village, into the darkness of night, and looked up.
Oh my God!
Oh MY God!
I've forgotten what night looks like. I've forgotten what stars look like. I've forgotten that it is these things that make us human.
The myriads of eternity framed by a crack in the earth like a jagged finger. The Milky Way, that pale shining river of stars, breathless billions of stars laid out across the depths, across the dark crystal oceans of time. Awe and wonder. Vertiginous delight.
I was walking along arm in arm with Diana, looking up. Stuart and Aurelia were up ahead, their voices echoing quietly in the canyon. And something came over me. Suddenly Diana and I had turned to each other and were kissing, kind, shy, playful, warm kisses. It was like the canyon was giving us permission for this. Like the river and the mountains and the stars and the trees overhead were conspiring together to make this happen. And the spirits that scurried through the night air were giving us their blessings. Our kisses blended in with all this, were part of all this, were part of nature: of dimensionless nature in all it's wondrous expansiveness, in its gloriousness, in its splendour, and we were glorious too, we were splendid too, we were as far-reaching as the stars.
This is the awful trick of our so-called civilisation, that it has hemmed us in to being merely bodies, into being merely human, into being merely units of production in a never ending machine to make money, when we are so much, much more than any of this, with hearts and minds and bodies that reach out as far as our imagination and our perception will allow. That we are eternal beings on a wonderful journey of opportunity and discovery into the cosmos of our own selves.
Later Diana walked on ahead while I caught a glimpse of a shadow by the side of the road.
It was Stuart, lying on his back looking up at the stars.
I lay down next to him and we were just about to begin a deep conversation about the meaning of life when, for some reason, Stuart got up and brushed his back of all the grit from the road. At which point his wedding ring flew off into the grasses and the darkness beside the road.
So now we had to stop and find his ring.
First of all Stuart marked the spot, by laying out stones in a row by the roadside. Then we began looking.
He was flashing his torch on the ground.
I realised I couldn't help, as I was dependent on the same torch, consequently looking over the same pieces of ground. Also I realised that this was Stuart's private drama, to do with him and Aurelia. It had nothing to do with me.
But I was struck by something profound.
From looking at the stars he had gone to looking at the ground.
From considering his place in the universe he had gone to considering his place in his marriage.
From thinking about the drama of eternity, he had gone to thinking about the drama of life.
And who is to say, really, which is the most important?
All part of the seamless tapestry of existence, from the very small, to the very large, everything accounting for something.
Eventually he gave up looking for the night. We agreed to come back and look again in the morning. Meanwhile we wandered back to the hotel.
I think it was at this point that I kissed Diana rather than earlier.
It doesn't matter when, really.
Stuart and Aurelia had gone back to the hotel while Diana and I loitered around in the valley exchanging sweet and salty kisses, but in the end the cold was getting to us, so we followed on behind, up the steps to the hotel door, passed the big picture window, where Stuart was inside - tsssssss! - playing with his hot hissing nipples, swinging his Dalai-Lama-Told-Me-To-Do-It, black man's on a white man's body, stuff-strutting arse, listening to Love Machine by the Miracles at top volume.
I'm just a love machine
And I won't work for nobody but you
I'm just a love machine
A hugging kissing fiend.
Waving his arms above his head. Disco dancing at the only nightclub in the Transylvanian mountains. Knowing we were watching.
He was putting on a show. For us. Just to keep us laughing.
This is what I like about Stuart. There is such a depth there. Such profundity. Such deep-thinking wonder. But it is all contained in the breadth of the ordinary. Of the every day. Of friendship. Of humour. Of the down-to-earthiness of a lucky guy from a council estate who cannot believe his luck and who consequently wants to share it with everyone. Who wants to embrace the whole world with his luck.
If I wanted to describe Stuart in the fewest possible words it would be these:
True generosity of the heart. True generosity of the spirit. A king amongst men.
Lost and found
I won't tell you any more about the night.
You can keep your filthy eyes away from what happened in the beds.
That's for us to know, and you to wonder.
But if you see a glint in my eye, maybe you can guess where it came from.
In the morning we had coffee and bread and jam made from wild strawberries. Then we paid up, and were on our way.
Stuart said, "I had a dream last night. Maybe that's why the hotel was called Magic Dreams. I dreamt I found the ring, but it wasn't in the place where I was looking."
So we all stopped in the place where he'd lost his ring the night before, which he'd marked out with a row of stones.
Diana said, "where did you lose it?"
And Stuart showed us how he'd been brushing off his back, and the trajectory that it must have followed, into the knotted grasses by the side of the road.
So now we were all looking, lifting the grasses carefully, peering into little indentations, beside rocks and pebbles, wondering if we would ever find the ring. It was an impossible task: that tiny little ring in all these forests of grasses, in these mountains of piled up stones, in the crevasses of tyre-prints where people had churned up the soil to park. We could be there for days and still not find the ring. It could be anywhere within a twenty foot radius. It could have bounced on a stone or rolled into a crack in the soil. We could have trodden it into the ground with all our trudging and searching.
Suddenly Stuart said, "the dream told me I'd find it where I wasn't expecting it. I haven't looked on the road yet." And he looked on the road, at completely the wrong angle, where it couldn‘t possibly be, and there it was.
"See, that's why the hotel was called Magic Dreams," he said. "That was definitely a magic dream."
We continued on our journey.
As we drove down the crooked canyon, between those glowering, overhanging rocks the size of steeples, I was struck by the sheer tenaciousness of the trees that clung there with such fierce intensity: sixty foot up, a hundred foot up, perched on a ledge the size of a bathroom shelf, roots piercing solid rock in order to secure their grip, balanced like ballet dancers on pointed toes, those trees were a model of the will to be alive, to survive, against impossible odds.
At the same time I thought of the tenaciousness of the peasants up here, who, for thousands of years, have performed the same feat of will and determination: here in these cold inhospitable mountains, forcing a living from the impenetrable rock, making cheese like pungent cream, and Tuica like wild fruit and mountain passes, living off their flocks and their patches of land, living life with the same deeply-rooted intensity as those trees.
And then we were out of the canyon, and back on the road we'd travelled along yesterday, through the village where we had seen the sign, on our way up the mountains once more.
Not for long though.
Not more than a couple of miles further on we were greeted by the most astonishing sight (as if all this hasn't been astonishing enough already):
It was a white tree, square about the trunk, with branches that twisted like arms, and that ended in contorted, misshapen, ghoulish, writhing hands.
A sculpture. And then, suddenly, we were surrounded by more sculptures: figures in the landscape, single figures and multiple figures, and circles of figures, here there and everywhere, dotted about a village that in every other way just seemed like all of the villages around here.
We stopped the car and got out.
Just to make this clear: the sculptures were all made of white-washed concrete and were clearly examples of local folk-art, crudely made, but with a certain vigorous presence in the landscape.
That tree was the weirdest of all. In the trunk was a coffin, and in the coffin the curvaceous figure of an entombed female.
The writhing arms of the branches were like the spirits of the living trying to get out of the enveloping grave. A tree-goddess.
It was macabre and strange.
Aurelia said: "How many arms has Siva?"
And I thought, "she's right," and we named the sculpture the Siva Tree.
There was a plaque across the road, and Aurelia went and read it for us, coming back to tell us the tale.
It involved an architect or a builder in the region who was building a monastery. Every day he built his monastery. At night he would sleep and in the morning, when he got up, his monastery had fallen to the ground again.
The builder had a wife whom he loved to distraction.
One night he had a dream. He dreamt that if he would brick up his wife in the walls of his monastery, then it would no longer fall down and - much as he loved his wife - this is what he did.
He built his beloved wife in the walls of his monastery, sacrificing her in the name of his religion, and, once this had been done, the walls of his monastery no longer fell down.
Two things struck me immediately: that this was both a Christian tale, of the sacrifice of the female principle to the patriarchal God, AND a more deeply-rooted pagan tale of human sacrifice to the gods of the land.
I felt that this very landscape gave rise to these stories. I felt that - along with the hay they grow for their sheep, and the vegetables they grow on their plots, alongside wild mushrooms and wild strawberries and wild flowers and fierce, tenacious trees - the land itself grew such tales.
I felt that the whole area was steeped in legends. In blood and legends.
I felt, in that moment, with a rush of blood to my head, with a kind of pounding breathlessness, as if it was my duty to stay here, to HARVEST these stories, as if I too was a sacrificial offering to the gods of this ancient place: as if I too must stay here forever.
How do you describe a landscape?
We carried on driving. Stuart said, "there's no rush now. Every time we see something we'll just stop."
A little further on we came to a newish-looking wooden building, like a log cabin. There was a car-park in the front, and some seats in the garden, where sat the local peasants, in the shade of the fruit trees, drinking Tuica. There were bear-skins pinned to the front of the cabin. We got out and I looked out at the valley beyond.
It took my breath away. I mean that literally. I stood there, heart pounding, unable to believe what I was seeing.
How do you describe a landscape? How do you describe a place on this earth?
It has a topography, a shape: nestled valleys in enfolding hills, rounded and sensuous like a woman, curved, sweeping, laid out, like a body relaxed after love-making, arms thrown back in the abandonment of love.
And on top of this landscape people are living, and the marks of their labour are all over the landscape: little houses with drifting wood-smoke, and the patches of fields, and haystacks and carts, all distinctly medieval, like the preserved remains of some ancient system of feudal allegiance.
And on top of this landscape of fields and forests and hills, history has unfolded, and blood has been spilled, and life has gone on, from generation to generation, and the landscape has been fought over, has been ravaged and torn, and murder and revenge and jealousy and passion have played out their great emotions in the human world.
And on top of this landscape of history there are stories, there are legends, there are imaginings. There are wicked witches and changeling children. There are fairies and spells and wishes and curses and good versus evil, and great deeds and heroic adventures and charging horses and battles and wonders and miracles and signs. There is the hero and his nemesis. There is love. There is fate. There is resolution. There is once-upon-a-time and happy-ever-after.
And on top of this landscape of story and legend, the people are dreaming. Strange dreams. Disturbed dreams. Dreams of flying. Visions of angels and winged demons. Visions of night creatures, like storm-clouds, flapping dark wings across the sky.
And all of this is in the landscape.
So there's a landscape, and people live on the landscape, but then the landscape feeds into the soul of the people, so it inhabits them internally, while they inhabit it externally. The people are inscribed upon the body of the landscape, but the landscape is inscribed upon the soul of the people. The two feed off each other. They cohabit, like man and wife. They love one another. The two become entwined till they are indistinguishable, till you can no longer tell which is which: the body of the landscape, the soul of the people. The two have become one.
But it is more than this.
Somewhere inside me is a dream. There is a place. It has a feeling. It is not a physical landscape, but a mythic one: a spiritual one.
It too has fields, and houses, and wood-smoke from chimneys, and little haystacks like witch's bonnets, and nestling valleys and storms and winds and sheep grazing on the hills. It too has bears in its woods. It too has danger.
How can I say this?
I looked out across that landscape, there in Transylvania, and knew that it was the one inscribed upon my heart.
I had come home.
All these feelings welled up inside me as I found myself panting for breath, trying not to cry. Stuart was standing close by, watching me. He said, "I told you mate. You can see it can't you?" I sobbed and Stuart put his arms around me and said, "that was my reaction too, the first time I saw it."
Afterwards the owner of the cabin, a young-old-middle-aged woman with a headscarf (it was hard to tell) took us into the cellar.
Aurelia said, "here is treasure."
It was a dark room filled with local produce: with pickles and dried meats and cheeses. And jars and jars, lined up on shelves, like an apothecary's storeroom. Jars of mushrooms. Jars of wild strawberry jam. Dried chillies. Cabbage. Cheese wrapped in wood bark. Sausages hanging from hooks. Glinting, polished jars full of wonder.
I asked if she had any Tuica, and the woman opened a large yellow plastic water barrel. At least 15 gallons. More. It was filled to the brim with Tuica. The fumes rose up and then drifted like swamp-mists, heavier than the air. The woman offered me a drink. I tried to refuse, but she insisted. So now I was drinking Tuica at ten o'clock in the morning. We bought jam and Tuica and a jar of pickled chillies.
Outside there were chairs and tables, in small shelters newly built of polished wood, overlooking that indescribable landscape. The woman wanted to show us her faun. She indicated through a gate to some ramshackle sheds, inside of which were a number of animals, including the faun, slender and delicate like a ballet dancer, with huge, sad-looking eyes. The woman made some tutting, kissing sound with her lips and tongue and the faun came forward. She threw some food in for it to eat.
Later Diana found a puppy cowering behind a fence. It was trembling. Diana made some cooing noises and the puppy's tail began to wag. She reached out to lift it, but the poor thing had been bitten on its nose. There was a raw, angry gash, pink and yellow, looking as if it was about to turn septic. The puppy began to wail, and immediately it's mother was there, a tiny little thing the size of a terrier, ready to defend it.
We carried on through the mountains. Everywhere we looked there were these vistas of eternity, these landscapes from our dreams.
By the side of the road were all these stalls selling the local produce: cheeses and meats and pickles and jams and the ubiquitous Tuica.
People were driving up from the cities below to buy.
And behind the stalls people were just throwing their rubbish, which kind of leaked down the side of the hills like industrial puss: plastic bottles and wrappers, plastic bags and old tin cans.
One woman had a broomstick beside her stall. No doubt it was to sweep away the debris, but for half a second I thought she might have been advertising some more subtle wares: psychic wares. Fortune telling and love potions. How to cast spells. I thought maybe she was a witch.
At some point I was overtaken by nausea. That Tuica on an empty stomach was getting to me. Stuart stopped the car and I got out to puke up, letting out an almighty fart at the same time. Who says the landscape of the soul is without it's physical side?
We carried on up the hills passed another stall, where we decided to buy some of the cheese. We parked up, and a man in a thin-brimmed trilby came rushing up to greet us. His mouth was filled with gold teeth. He weighed out the cheese for us, and we paid, while he chatted away to Aurelia. There was something about the man. His skin was soft and pale, clear and unblemished. He had pale eyes. There was something gentle in his demeanour, something modest and shy. He seemed like a person from a fairy-tale, like the woodsman who rescues Red Riding Hood, perhaps. Like a figure in the landscape. He was imbued with the landscape. His whole body was infused with clear, clean mountain air. He seemed as clear and as clean as the air he breathed. He was ageless. You could not tell how old he was. He might have been forty, he might have been fifty, he might have been a hundred and fifty. It was impossible to tell. He seemed to glow with an internal light.
And now do you feel it? Can you sense it? Have I given you a feeling of what it was like to be there, on that day, at this particular time in history?
I've cast digital words upon a digital page, tapping out these rattling, clumsy letters upon a computer keyboard on my desk, in my little study back in England, remembering all of this for you: whoever you might be.
Who knows when you will read it?
Who knows if Romania will still be the same?
Things are changing. The world is changing. Will our dreams even be the same?
But there, in the mountains, on that day, with my friends, I passed a little time. The time came and the time went. It dissolved into nothingness again, like breath into the wind. But maybe - just maybe - in the halls of eternity, they have kept a record of all this. Maybe - just maybe - the gods looked down upon us that day, with pleasure, with amusement, with joy. Because we are human. We are come and gone like seeds in the wind. In the lives of the stars our lives mean nothing: the merest breath. And what have we done? We have lived and we have died and we have given new lives to our heirs. We have built towers of sand that disappeared as quickly as they appeared. In the life of the stars whole civilisations have gone by in the drawing of a single breath. How much less important, then, the lives of these four individuals. How much less important this one particular day?
And yet it is a day that will live with me for the rest of my life. The gift of friendship. The gift of time. Some moments shared. A warm embrace. That visceral landscape like a painting. Some words, some memories, some laughs. The sparking of the eye. The beating of the heart. Maybe it all means nothing. Maybe the theologians of materialist science are right, and we are merely accidental scraps of matter in a meaningless universe, drifting about on the winds of chance. Maybe nothing really matters at all.
But there, in those mountains, on that day, I learnt a new philosophy. I learned that we might as well act AS IF it matters, AS IF the universe has meaning, AS IF it all has a purpose, even if it turns out to be completely meaningless in the end.
After all, what have we got to lose?
At least we will have enjoyed ourselves in the meantime.
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