It was 2002 and I wanted to take my children on holiday. So I asked them what they would like to do. Martha (12) said, “I want to go horse-riding,” and Sam (10) grinned devilishly and growled. “Vampires!” was the word he snarled. So I did what any sensible father would do and asked Google for horse-riding, vampires and holiday. And this website came up: http://www.greenmountainholidays.ro, a Dutch-Belgian outfit who ran holidays in Romania, of all places. Why not, I thought? I had had a little crush on Nadia Comaneci when she stormed the Olympics as a teenager, but that along with the fall of Ceaucescu was about all I knew about the place. It turned out that Green Mountain Holidays offered a horse and cart trip, with a driver (I knew nothing about how to even park, let alone drive a horse) through Transylvania. Well it wasn’t really Transylvania proper, but very close, and it did offer horses. Something for everyone. The company was pretty green too. You paid your money straight into the hands of the owners of the houses you stayed in, so supported the local economy directly and it did not pass through any sticky fingers on the way. And the Apuseni mountains were a pretty poor rural area of Romania. At the time £20 bought more than one million lei so I found myself a millionaire overnight.
After a night in Bucharest we flew to the regional capital, Cluj-Napoca, where the office of Green Mountain Holidays was located. They were to meet us at the airport. We hung around waiting for them, with me wondering what on earth I had done. Here we were stuck in a town in an unknown country, with two children and not the faintest idea what to do next. Eventually I went back to the taxi driver who had offered his services some time earlier and showed him the address. Yes, he knew it, and yes he would take us there. After about half an hour driving out of Cluj, I started to worry. How far was it? He made some waving motions with his hand and I mimed for him to stop at a phone so we could try to contact them again. It took about an hour for us to get the office, which was in a small village some sixty kilometres out of the city. It cost us fifty euros. The office was closed. The taxi driver offered to hang around to see that we were ok. We really were in the middle of nowhere here in the village of Manastireni. At least there was a bar next to the shut-up office, so we sat on the terrace while I had a beer and tried to figure out what to do next.
Not long after Raluka, the partner of the owner Johan, turned up. She had had car troubles and had been late. Having asked around at the airport she had followed us out here. Of course, she would pay for the taxi. How much did we pay? “Fifty euros!” she screamed and went marching across the road, where her lovely charm disappeared and her fierce side came out as she bawled at the cowering driver. A lot of shouting ensued and eventually she got the real price and a refund from the fifty we had paid. I felt a little sorry for the taxi driver who had gallantly waited to see we were all right. OK, he did rip us off, but taxi drivers everywhere, in my experience, do that.
We had agreed to keep holiday diaries and draw pictures of the places we stayed.
Martha: When we got on the plane we had to go to the other end of the runway and that took about 15 minutes. After that we took off and we went really fast. After 15 minutes we came over water. I could see the Isle of Wight and there were lots of little clouds and you could see all of their shadows. After 5 minutes we all had a drink. Sam had coke, Dad had beer (Stella) and I had water. After 5 minutes we came over France. That’s where we are now. We had dinner on the plane and it wasn’t very nice. My favourite thing was the pudding. It was some sort of pie. We landed at Bucharest at about 10:30pm (Romanian time). There was a man waiting for us at the airport with a sign that said “Baxter”. At the hotel a man came and collected our bags and took them to our room. We were room number 323. We phoned Mum and then went to bed. We woke up at 6am and then had breakfast. I had omelette and Romanian cheese. We left the hotel at 6:50 and went to the airport. We checked in and then went straight to a bus which took us straight to the plane. We were on the plane for about 45 minutes. Cluj airport was tiny. We had to put our hand luggage in compartments above us so the flight was really boring. We had to wait at the airport for about half an hour because our car never turned up. Then a taxi driver offered us a lift to wherever we wanted to go. Dad didn’t know where we were supposed to be so he showed the taxi driver the address of the holiday company’s office but what the taxi driver didn’t tell us was that the office was 100KM away from Cluj. Dad found out about half way there and made the taxi driver stop so he could phone the office but the phone number he had was old, so Dad just had to carry on going. Dad and the taxi driver managed to have a conversation in French and Dad found out that the taxi would cost about 5o euros. When we got to the office we had to wait 5 minutes for Raluka. The taxi driver tried to overcharge her but she wasn’t having it. Raluka and the taxi driver had a big argument so we only had to pay 1.5 million lei instead of 50 euros which is a lot more.
Sam: We are at Heathrow in the plane. It is really exciting. There are tables that fold up into the back of the seats and there is a drink-holder. We have just gone over the sea. We are heading towards France. We are above the clouds now. I have just had a coke and a biscuit. The service on this plane is not too bad.
The first house we were to stay in was about twenty minutes down a track out of the village. If you sat on the terrace, the lovely old lady rushed out with cushions to sit on. She could not have been more welcoming. We drew pictures and then walked across the railway track to the house of the vet, Ludovig, who had the horse and cart we were going to be travelling on. He had eleven horses, many chickens, a totally bonkers mule and a large pen of twenty two stray dogs he had rescued from the streets in Cluj. Every household here seems to have dogs. We met Aogene (Geno), who was to drive the cart. He was a young lad and this was his first trip. He spoke a little English, enough for him to become a good friend over the next few days. He told us about the houses we would stay in and the preot’s (priest’s) wife. “Ah, the preot’s wife”, repeated Ludovig, rolling his eyes and giggling. The vet suggested trying out the horse and cart. He explained that they could not put up the canopy because that spooked one of the horses. A little way up the steep muddy track one of the horses tried to turn around, panicked and then slipped and fell into a ditch. It was tangled in the harness and couldn’t get up. I can still see its hazel-coloured, wide, staring freaked-out eyes as it lay stock still, too frightened even to attempt to move. I worried that it had hurt itself seriously. What the hell have we let ourselves in for, I wondered? It took a good half hour to go and fetch the vet and disentangle and calm the beast. In fact I later saw that these people were excellent equestrians and despite the broken yoke on the wagon they had skilfully calmed then extracted the horse with no damage apart from repairs needed to the cart. The next day we rode out to the blacksmiths in preparation for our trip. Martha maintained that she was bitten by a “big grasshopper” and Sam wrote that he “found out that I had lots and lots of bites”. I thought that they were mosquito bites but later learned that they were dog flea bites. “It’s raining, it’s pouring, Dracula is snoring” Sam wrote as we left the hamlet.
We arrived at a farmstead near the tiny village of Scrind on the first stop on our journey. There we met some Dutch people who were hiking a Green Mountain Holidays route. They were kind to us and removed the tick that Sam had picked up. They had come prepared. Two couples, old friends, and one was an unfathomably tall archaeologist. “I don’t know what this is doing up here,” he said, picking up a stone. In fact, he explained, it was a coprolite – fossilised poo. It had come from a shark – he knew that because it was spiral-shaped and the shark is the only animal with a spiral shaped anus. A long time ago, the sea must have inundated the high mountains here. I still have this fossil. We played cards with them to while away the evening and they had pancake-eating competitions with the children. The other man was slowly going blind, and his friends were determined to help him see as much as he could of the world before he lost his sight. They were teachers. The next stop was across a dam over the Iara River, in a small valley near the village Valea Ierii. The houses here were memorable for the painted decorative ceilings and huge, ceramic wood-burners, ornate and tiered to the full height of the rooms.
Sam: I now have 55 bites. The next day we set off and I drove the cart for a bit. It was fun. When we got to the house our driver got a little bit flirty. I have 63 bites. It was the best house by far and we met the Dutch people again. I had a cake-eating contest with the Dutch people and I won.
Martha: We met a girl called Ramona who’s 12. She told us her dog was in trouble because he ate all the cheese. She spoke very good English. Before dinner we went into the village to look for a phone to phone Mum but there wasn’t one. I don’t like this house. The atmosphere isn’t very nice. The woman here gave us meat for dinner so I didn’t eat it. After dinner the woman came and tried to get us to buy one of her table cloths. We bought a blue and white one for Mum. The woman made it herself. It cost 35 euros. On the cart today we were going up the valley to the top of the mountain. Near the top we picked up a hitchhiker. He was an old man with a kind face. Sam didn’t want to pick him up but nobody else minded. The fourth house is OK. The only thing is the girls here are obsessed with our driver, who’s called Geno. Sam drove the cart today. To make the horses go faster you say “gatonnay” and it didn’t work for Sam so Dad said, “treat them like children, let them know who’s boss”. So Sam yelled, “Gatonnay NOW”. House five: the woman here is a doctor and this is just her holiday home. She had a look at my bites on my shoulder and said they weren’t mosquito bites. She speaks French so she talked to Dad a lot.
We had a rest day at the doctor’s house.
She took us into the woods on the hillside and we picked chanterelles which the doctor cooked in butter for our dinner. The place was a lovely wooden cabin, quite large with long balconies overlooking the forest and Martha washed her hair in the rain leaning out over the wooden railings here. Every day she had been picking flowers to put in her hair. Geno told the doctor we were going to stay with the preot after here. She rolled her eyes and giggled: “And the preot’s wife”. I asked Geno what it was about this woman that made everybody do this. “It’s… it’s… I don’t know how to say… it’s… very big!” was all I could get out of him. She diagnosed Sam’s bites as flea-bites and gave us some cream to treat them.
When we got to the next house we visited some local caves and waterfalls and built a dam over the river.
Sam: We walked down the valley and got our feet wet and we built a dam. After that we walked up a hill and saw some caves. The first one we went in and found some bones. The second cave we did not go in because it was against the law to go in without permission. It had freezing cold air coming out of the 30m drop that had a whirlpool at the bottom. The freezing cold air came out in the form of a cloud. The air coming out was so strong that all the leaves and the branches of the trees were blowing away for about 5m.
Martha: For breakfast we had cheese, chips and egg again. It was delicious.. we went back along the river and stopped. Sam built two small dams and I found mushroom heaven. Dad and Geno put a log over the river and made it into a bridge. Then we walked to another cave and Sam found some bones of an animal. We don’t know what the animal is though [I was hoping it was a bear having had long talks with Geno about what we would do, and what the horses would do, if we were to come across one]. Geno says that the next person we stay with is a vet so we will ask him [cal –horse- he told us]… Then we walked back to the river and washed the bones. As we were walking back to the river a bug flew into my nose. I jumped up and down to try and get it out and I hurt my knee. Dad had to carry me back… Dad and Sam said there was a massive storm in the night and the lightening was so bright you couldn’t even see but they didn’t even bother to wake me up… on the cart we went past the river (which had flooded) and saw the first dam we had made and it had survived the storm. The log and the other dams had gone. There were quite a few fallen down trees in the road… We went home and played cards with Anna-Marie and then had dinner. I gave Anna-Marie a ring and after dinner I gave her a hair braid. It was the first one I’d ever done and it turned out really well.
We kept on coming into the same houses as our Dutch friends. They gave us useful tips about places they had discovered on their hikes, like the mill where we were asked to guess at the purpose of the Heath-Robinson style mousetrap. Or the graveyard and as Martha wrote: There was one grave outside the grave yard. Geno said they do that if you commit suicide. And they say Christians welcome everyone into the church!
I enjoyed Geno’s company and we learnt about each other’s lives. I explained to him that although I may be a millionaire in Romania I certainly wasn’t at home. He told me about his family and how the vet was helping him by giving him this work. He was kind to the children, playing with them, letting them drive the cart and forever watchful when they decided to walk for a bit. He took us to local stores in villages to buy snacks and drinks for the day ahead. Everything we bought was shared with him and his English got better and better, as did his indulgence in beer! I learnt a smattering of Romanian and he told me about the country and the ways of life there. We laughed a lot.
So finally we got to the eighth house – the preot’s. But he wasn’t in and neither was his famous wife. So I played a few songs on the guitar for Geno, then we played in the garden, after that we hit the local bar.
Martha: Dad made me and Sam paper aeroplanes and me and Sam had a competition to see who could get theirs to fly the furthest. Sam lost and got in a strop. Then we went back to the priest’s house.
The preot used to be a fireman and his wife was as large as advertised. She was an effervescent character who asked us about our lives, in what could only be termed a boorish manner. Her eyes were heavily made-up under her peroxide hair and she wore what looked like multiple layers of foundation, blusher and the like. Her lips were painted a garish shade of scarlet and she was LOUD. But kind.
Sam: when we arrived at the priest’s house the priest’s wife met us. She was big and she had about 15 layers of make-up on but she was friendly.
Martha: The priest’s wife is quite large and a total tart. After dinner we played poker with the priest and then went to bed.
We went to witness some of the all day service in the church the next day. It was chanted and sung in an orthodox fashion which Martha described as “weird”. After one more home-stay we got back to the vet’s where he plied us with his home-made liqueur and arranged for the children to have a ride on horseback the following day. Raluka came and took us to the nearest big village to a craft shop before driving us back to Cluj where she bought us a slap-up pizza meal before we got on the plane back to the UK via Paris. Sam’s bath was floating with half-drowned dog fleas once he’d finished. But a good time was had by all and I got the sense that we’d entered a portal into the everyday life of the people of the Apuseni Mountains. Their hospitality and efforts to accommodate us were fabulous and I have nothing but fond memories of the country and people we met along the way. It rained quite a lot and we often got wet without the canopy on the cart, but our spirits were never dampened by this. Two weeks at a leisurely pace into welcoming homes was just the ticket for a horse-riding-vampires-holiday and I would do it again at the drop of a hat.