The taxi wound through Transylvanian forest and dropped me in Brasov. I ducked through slim alleys into an underground restaurant. Over pickles, polenta and goulash, a couple described bears swaggering down streets, sniffing the air and picking any tit bits they fancied. Drunk men have been attacked in the past. There was local uproar when a policeman shot a bear walking down the street.
We drove up a hair-pin road to a village in the Carpathian mountains. I imagined pin balling between beech trunks on an unplanned descent.
‘Romanians love colour,’ explained my host as I pointed out red rooves. ‘There were none in communist times. So now they let loose.’
In the morning, I opened my curtains to rolling greenery dotted with houses. Behind, steep mountains were cushioned with trees. Beyond them, a snowy ridge loomed maternally.
The houses were hundreds of yards apart. Sheds and log stacks took up more space than homes. Bells chimed from the necks of sheep, a method used to keep bears and wolves away. Another one is dogs. Some were scruffy runts. Others, boulder headed beasts. Barks reverberated around the village.
On the home stretch of my first walk, I picked my way down a slope. Three dogs bounded towards me. They were not coming for a pat on the head. I scrambled over rocks, turning round to swear at them. They kept on my trail, barking, keeping me moving. This went on for half a mile. These dogs are bred to protect.
A guide told me of a woman chased off a cliff, another torn to shreds by a pack of ten. He had electric cattle prods to keep tour groups safe. He explained that summer is worse when sheep are in the mountains. Then, dogs are on constant guard. ‘The worst you can do is run. Then you’re prey.’ I befriended a large stick but never used it. The village people are an antidote to the snarling dogs. The biggest threat I had was a toothless man stooped over a stick shouting, ‘Tourist,’ followed by, ‘Money,’ from his garden.
Mountain trails took me through the silence of spruce and beech, to flower peppered openings of rich green. Views were spectacular. From one ridge I saw whole towns churn below.
At the local market. pig bladders were sewn around lumps of cheese. Live Carp flopped in steel trays. We bought jars of homemade pickle. Gypsy women shouted over heaps of clothes. Traditional music throbbed. Rain spattered. Nobody cared.
Having helped a peasant farmer cut down a sycamore, I invited myself to his home. The door was opened with beaming smiles. A far cry from the concrete grin slapped on by Brits. The husband shuffled into the dark and returned with a plate of crumbling cheese. Children hopped on the floorboards with excitement. ‘It’s a relief with summer,’ said the wife. ‘Then they’re out all day.’ Intricate carvings were on the furniture. Mushroom stools were carved from birch. We sipped beer.
Pizza appeared after subtle visits to the kitchen. The cheese had an animal tang. I was sent on my way with a bag of the pungent stuff.
In a snow storm, a rickety train took me to Bucharest. The echoey Gare du Nord was a mass of bustling Romanians. I walked out to people stooped over shovels scooping paths in the snow. Communist tower blocks loomed over 18th century churches made of tiny red brick. The church interiors gleamed with art, not an inch of wall or ceiling was bare. The gloomy silence and dark wood were a sanctuary of calm, hidden from the city. I reclaimed the peace and silence of the Transylvanian forest.