Friends from Budapest had booked their holidays in Brela, Croatia, and suggested that we join them. Having finally obtained a reasonably sized car for such an undertaking (a Daewoo Tico really isn't suitable for a family of four and luggage to make such a trip), we said yes, and I started looking on the excellent ViaMichelin website for the route we should take. The shortest distance involved driving to Timisoara, down to Belgrade, and then across Bosnia to the coast, but this wasn't necessarily the quickest, which instead involved utilising those miraculous things called motorways (unavailable in Romania, Serbia, and Bosnia) to make the trip through Hungary and Croatia. Since we had also decided to bring my father-in-law, we thus chose the quicker route (especially because we would have to first call in at Marosvasarhely/Targu Mures to pick up our passenger). In the spirit of the age in which words are combined to make other more ridiculous and crap sounding words (like "infotainment" or "synergy") here is my contribution to the new vocabulary: a narradrive. Enticing huh? Read on...
After the pick up, on the well worn route through Hungarian speaking Harghita and Mures counties, we set off towards Cluj. En route ( a road I have driven a few times) you pass the most amazing houses in Campia Turzii. I don't have a picture to share, but here is a similar one in Huedin (which we also passed later)(courtesy of Dumneazu's excellent blog).
These are houses built by rich Roma, and the ones in Campia Turzii are, if anything, even more exotic and overwhelming than the one pictured above. Next time I pass them, I will definitely stop and take pictures. (Later update: Please see comments to this post for Randy's link to a photo of the houses)
We descended into Cluj - however you approach Cluj you have to seemingly descend into this large hole that the city seems to be built in. From the south the descent is particularly dramatic, but every other way seems to involve a similarly precipitous descent (I've never actually flown to Cluj, but I'm making an educated guess that the same would be true in that direction too). One thing you pass as you engine-brake your way down the mountain is a huge sign by the side of the road welcoming you to the city. This welcome is conducted in many different languages - Romanian, English, German, French, Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese etc. Only one language (given Cluj's history and ethnic mix) is conspicuous by its absence. Yes, you guessed it, Hungarian. This sign is, I strongly suspect, a cheery reminder of the Funar years when Cluj was presided over by a lunatic Romanian nationalist mayor who did everything he could to piss off Hungarians, but instead, unsurprisingly, ended up looking like a petty minded idiot.
Through a very congested and chaotic Cluj, passing straight through Romania's most beautiful suburb, a horrible mess of a place which is, I think, called Manastur. I've only ever really been to central Cluj before, which is quite nice, but Manastur is about as horrible as it is possible to be. We then climbed back out of the city on the road to Oradea (and Huedin, see above). This is a road I hadn't driven before, and it is (in places) very attractive, especially when it climbs to the top of a mountain pass just past Negreni.
Finally we made it to the border at Bors, just past Oradea, and crossed with incredible ease, our first time crossing a land border since Romania joined the EU. A brief look at our passports, and we were waved ahead. No checking of the car papers, no checking of whether or not the Romanian passport holders had 500 Euros each (as they used to have prove), no problems. Miraculous. We stopped off for a coffee, at which my father-in-law told us how the first time he'd ever crossed this border sometime back in the 60s, the first thing he and his friend had done was to drink a coffee since real coffee was at that time unavailable in Romania.
Things you notice when you leave cross from Romania to Hungary by road:
- The road surface becomes immeasurably better (to be fair this is partly just because the road between Oradea and Bors is a complete mess, not because all Romanian roads are still as bad as they were a few years ago)
- Suddenly the landscape becomes incredibly, impossibly flat. It's like whoever drew up the Trianon treaty said, "We'll mark this border here - you can keep this endless flat bit, and the bit with any sort of contours we'll give to Romania".
- You no longer see blokes pissing by the side of the road. You do see cars which are stopped and you can assume that somewhere there is someone watering the roadside vegetation, but it's done much more privately than in Romania, where people just pull over, whip it out and let fly there and then, regardless of visibility or any other considerations of decorum.
- The overall average standard of driving goes up considerably. No longer do you get people screaming up the wrong side of the road outside of queues of traffic, no longer do you see death defying acts of bravery/stupidity on a quarter-hourly basis.
- There are reflective things by the side of and in the middle of the road, and reasonable lighting in towns and villages. This is probably something you would only notice crossing at night, but it is certainly very very noticeable. While driving at night in Romania is pretty hard work, since you can only see what your headlights illuminate, in Hungary it is much much better.
Next installment: Our intrepid heroes leave the endless plain behind and head further west...Tune in whenever I get round to writing it for episode 2