Europe

VIDEO: TACKLING THE TRANSFAGARASAN HIGHWAY

(This film is a complement to our last essay from the Transfagarasan Highway in Transylvania, a route made famous by the UK’s Top Gear. Stax shot the driving footage (GoPro Hero Black 3 and Canon 60D) and Beej shot much of the scenery with his trusty Lumix GH2. Edited by Stax, who found very cool music by Brooklyn/San Diego duo The Fucked Up Beat and Brooklyn/Los Angeles duo High Places (both used via the Free Music Archive fair use license and attributed accordingly). The video was fun to put together and made the (very) cold trip worth it. Watch below and if you like it, Subscribe to our Youtube channel to get all our new videos!

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Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu pushed through construction of the Transfagarasan Highway in 1970.  By all accounts the construction was hellishly difficult and brutal. Legend said he was spooked by the Soviet invasion of the former Czechoslovakia and wanted to build a military route to head off any similar invasion by his “comrades” in Russia.

But more likely, Ceausescu wanted to add the conquering of an incredibly rugged mountain range in the independent region of Transylvania – an area often resistant to his 20-year autocracy – to his list of “achievements”.

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The country can point to the road as a success in at least one way: it brings thousands of motorheads from all around the world every year to Transilvania to race along the its wacky curves and hair-raising cliffside tunnels.

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The road calls adventure freaks like the Sirens called Odysseus (Stax and Beej would jointly be Odysseus in this scenario. And Carla and Megs, two adventurous Australian girls from the hostel in Sibiu, would be our trusty crewmates. Don’t worry, no one drowned. But at one point Beej did have be lashed to the hood.)

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We took a driving break for Megs and Carla to say hello to a wandering Romanian sheepdog on the side of the road, probably on a break from guarding his flock. These sheepdogs are massive and resemble small bears (I thought it was a Romanian brown bear from a distance).

Our ascent of the Fagaras pass ended at the summit of the road, Lake Balea (2046 meters or 6712 feet).

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At the lakeside we froze in high winds tinged with ice and just to warm our hands up,  scarfed down hot -off-the-fire balmos or mamaliga (not really sure which – there are tons of iterations of these traditional corn cakes in Romania).

The balmos were crazy filling – thick flame-roasted corn cakes, much like gooey polenta, with mountains of sour pasty sheep cheese pooled inside. The cheese was so strong, I could barely finish the thing.

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Along the way down we spied the towers of Poenari Citadel clinging to a rocky cliff high above the road. In this citadel in the 16th century, the real-life inspiration for Dracula (Prince Vlad Tepes, who ruled the South) actually lived for a time.

Now it’s a spectacularly crumbling ruin you can climb up to. Unfortunately due to time and being cold and one of our car-mates being sick with a migraine, we couldn’t hike to the top.  Next time, Vlad Dracul. Next time!

After a windy descent through autumn forests and across glacial streams, we reluctantly parted ways with the Transfagarasan Highway at the massive dam on Lake Vidraru – an appropriately scenic send-off to one of the most transcendent stretches of road I’ve ever driven.

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Wedding Crashers, Part III: Maramures, Romania

Continued from Part II:

After we attended the practice wedding in Oncesti, we sat down over coffee with our unofficial fixer, Bud.

Bud told us there would be a traditional wedding in the village of Budesti the next weekend, and that he would even be bringing Japanese tourists there to catch the festivities. (Japanese tourism in this area is big.)

Back in Maramures

Bicycle against cemetery gate, Botiza, Maramures.

So, just days before our rental car was due in Cluj-Napoca, we found ourselves at an elementary school in Budesti that doubled as a cultural museum, searching for a woman named Maria, the principal there, who we’d been told could point us to possible translators. We battled through hordes of wild little Romanian kids to get to her office (the risks we take for this job, the derring-do!)

We ended up recording a long interview with Adrian, a teacher at the school, and his father, Petru.  Adrian explained a lot of the history and culture behind wedding traditions, while Petru shared tales of weddings 30 years before, during the communist era.

Problem is, nobody in Budesti seemed to know about any wedding happening that weekend. And we talked to A LOT of people from Budesti – teachers at the school, shop owners, church attendants, and the principal Maria herself.

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Churchyard cemetery in Botiza, Maramures.

Nonetheless, with hope in our hearts and a Korean hostelmate, Hyoshin, in tow, we showed up last-ditch on the appointed morning and asked around all the churches. No wedding today.

We were a bit crushed, as was Hyoshin, who’d wanted to experience a wedding before she went off to Moldova.

We decided to salvage our last day in Budesti anyway and check out the interior of the1 6th century wooden church. The church attendant reconfirmed: no wedding. But,  there would be a large traditional wedding here in two weeks, she said. On Oct. 31- Halloween Night. (Side note: they don’t really celebrate Halloween here.)

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Horse-drawn wagon with lumber from the mountains in Ieud, Maramures.

We vowed then and there to return to Budesti, connect with the family, and film this wedding. And now you can all see how best-laid plans can be quite mangled by the reality of documentary filmmaking.

We returned the car and wandered about Transylvania, having adventures both high and low, before bee-lining it back to Cluj Napoca to rent the same little bubbly Ford Ka we had rented before. As if the past two weeks had never happened, suddenly we were back in Maramures. Not such a bad place to be, really!

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Falling down barn in Borsa, Maramures

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Peaks above Borsa, Maramures.

All we knew was that the wedding would take place in the villages of Budesti and Mara. No one could tell us where in town the groom’s pre-wedding parties, processions and dances would happen.

But having experienced this before, we knew if we just walked around Budesti’s narrow lanes in the early afternoon and listened for the traditional fiddle and horn music, our ears would take us where we wanted to go. We reached the groom’s festivities just in time for his uncle to fill our hands with dumplings, cakes and shots of Horinca.

It was a crazy day that we’ll try to capture in Episode 2.

But for now, after several epic train and bus journeys and two flights; after witnessing historic protests of the good kind (in Romania) and the not-so-good kind (in Warsaw, Poland), and the filming of yet another wedding (this one just as a favor for our friends in County Donegal, Ireland), we find ourselves house-sitting and wrangling our footage together in a quiet (and ordered) corner of the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) in Germany.

Here there are no protests. Few distractions, in fact, besides watering our friends’ plants, making pumpkin bread from the pumpkins on the back porch, watching the early snow-showers fall outside – and of course, editing away hours on end for the first two episodes of “A Wedding of Cultures” (“AWOC” for short).

There will be much more soon! Watch for more video and blog updates!

Wedding Hunters!: From Wedding Hunt to Wedding Crash

Or, The Practice Wedding. Continued from the previous post!

by Stax. Photos by Stax.

Saturday arrived, so we gathered our gear – stripped down a little, as this would just be a practice run – and drove to Oncesti to have coffee with Bud at his guesthouse (Pensiunea Bud Mariana) before we crashed the wedding. As we drove into town, lines of cars on either side of the road and boisterous accordion music gave away the location, a small house near the top of the hill.

At Bud’s, we ask one more time: “Is it really okay if we crash the wedding?”

As every red-blooded American knows, weddings are for GUESTS via INVITATION ONLY.  You do not walk through someone’s backyard right behind their houses as a shortcut through the village (as people constantly do here) unless you want a visit from the cops, and you DO NOT crash weddings. Our American brains have difficulty comprehending that yes, it’s often perfectly all right for a foreigner to show up at the wedding of strangers in Maramures.

“Yes. Yes. Of course. It’s okay,” Bud reassures us. “People are very friendly here.”

Unfortunately Bud could not attend after all, so we’d be on our own for translators – hopefully there would be a teenager who wanted to practice their English there. We approached the wedding, striding purposefully toward the house to hide our anxiety. The sound of music and dancing grew louder. We were going to crash this wedding of complete strangers and worse, we were going to invade the proceedings with cameras and try to get some footage.

We stopped in front of the large wooden gate, next to a gaggle of young women who were dressed in a variety of very old and very new styles. Modern black dresses mixed with traditional sheepskin and woven wool vests over white puffy shirts, black and red skirts, tights and black furry boots. Some heads were bare, others covered in a colorful array of scarves.

The Women

Two older men in traditional garb stood, wobbling a bit with slight smiles on their faces, in front of the gate. One of the men brandished a giant bottle of tequila to pour shots for those just arriving.

“Is there a wedding happening? ” Ben asked one of the men n his inquisitive manner.

Before anyone could answer, a woman spied us from inside the gate. Her face lit up. She walked straight up to us and began to speak in rapid Spanish. From her gestures alone, we surmised her meaning: “Come inside, I’ll show you around!”

Her words hovered around my the language areas of my brain like hummingbirds, searching for flowers of meaning to pollenate. I struggled to snatch the different words. I hadn’t spoken Spanish since our trip to Spain and Morocco last year. My skills had been sitting in the dark and dusty parts of my brain and it was plainly obvious.

I tilted my head toward her and squinted my eyes a bit in concentration. With our powers combined, Beej and I deciphered that she was the sister of the groom and her name was Ileana. She grew up in Maramures, but she’d been living in Valencia, Spain, with two South American women – which is where she acquired the rapid-fire Spanish. While Ileana talked her father handed Beej the bottle of Tequila and urged both of us to take a deep swig. (Seriously, guys. Welcome to Romania.)

After the introductions, Ileana lead us past the revelers and into the house to show us the “traditional room” of the house. Many houses in the Maramures region have a room where they display large hand-crafted items – wool rugs, tapestries, and clothing – that the craftier women in the family hand-make. Ileana took down a particularly bright and colorful red vest and helped me put it on, gesturing for Beej to take a picture.

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I took note of a row of heavy blankets and hanging from the wall, arranged similar the way that fancy wrapping papers or bolts of fabric are arranged horizontally in a store. Ileana grasped a part of one and rubbed the wool between her fingers. “Mi madre,” Ileana looked at us. “Mi madre hizo la manta.”

Her mother made this.

She pointed to my camera and mimed taking pictures. “Fotos.”

I held up my camera. “I can take photos?” I asked.

“Yes. Yes.” She nodded her head vigorously and waved her hand around the room. “Cualquier cosa.”

Anything. People started to fill the small room. One of them, a younger cousin in his 20’s from the area of Alba Iulia pretty far south of here, had very good English. So Ileana appointed him our minder during the rest of the groom’s party.

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At one point we were seated at a table outside behind the courtyard beside the musicians, who were playing up a storm. An older woman, explained to be the groom’s mother, came by with plates and pointed at the meat and bread on the table. The older women in the family tend to do a lot of the planning and cooking around the weddings, we are to find out.

Horincă was poured, of course, along with big bowls of ciorbă, a creamy and sour soup well stocked with chunks of of sheep and cow stomach lining (tripe) that Americans don’t normally eat.

The Woman Who Gave us Food

Through talking to the cousin, we find that he was as lost as we were about some of the customs here.

“I am from another village in a different region,” he told us. “If anyone dressed like these people in my town, we would think he was crazy!”

The groom’s pre-party was winding down. Let me explain: before the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom have separate pre-parties where they eat, drink, dance and take pictures with their respective families. It’s kind of like a pre-game of opposing football teams, except the different teams will get married instead of pounding each other into the ground.

The Groom

After this event, we were told, the groom’s party would drive a huge procession of cars about 20km to meet up in the bride’s town, Sighetu Marmatiel, to join with the bride’s side.

Now, it didn’t seem to us the safest proposition to be involved in this train of cars after the amounts of horinca we’d seen some of the guests drink. But with luck, the entire groom’s family would make it in one piece.

But even after this, the night wouldn’t be over. After carousing some more in Sighetu, the complete wedding party would drive east to somewhere in the mountains near Viseu de Sus – over 50km the opposite direction – to marry.

Anyway, we were pretty sure this was the plan, but we didn’t have much time to confirm because soon everyone was on the move up the street in a large procession. They were only headed to their cars; but what a grand parade they were.

Musicians played near the front and set the beat, while at the head of the pack, a guy we later identified as the the groom’s best man twirled and tossed a big colorful flag into the air like a majorette of a marching band. Cars arriving in town had to weave around the huge procession to pass through. At one point, the crowd moved to the side as a mammoth tour bus edged past them. As he passed, the bus driver honked enthusiastically at the groom’s party below while all the passengers stood, waved and cheered.

Though we didn’t get a chance to follow the rest of the wedding that night – this was practice for the main event later in the month – we managed to get some photos of the party.

Parade Time

Walking Guests

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Music time accordion to this guy. (Haha! Get it!)

Groomsmen

Stay tuned for Part Three!

Maramures, Romania: The Wedding Search, Part One

by Stax

I think Beej and I should start calling ourselves “The Wedding Hunters.”

After decompressing for a couple of days at the Avenue Hostel in Budapest, we made our way by train to Cluj-Napoca, a comfortable 8 hours across the Hungarian border in Romania. The train was delayed so we didn’ t arrive until 2 am.

We flung ourselves into a taxi with a suicidal driver who sped at 100 km/hr around 30 km/hr corners through the town center. Then he dropped us off on the darkened street of our lovely friend Ilinca, with whom we spent several nights last year Couchsurfing. Ilinca is a night owl, luckily. She had just returned from a year abroad at a training/internship in Holland and was still readjusting to life in her home city.

In Cluj, we had a couple of days to re-center ourselves: brush up on our rudimentary Romanian (thank you, good day, where is the toilet?, etc.), tea at Papillon, stop by the Iulius Mall for last minute supplies. We rented a cheap bubble car (a tiny Ford Ka), and bob’s your uncle, we were off.

We bobble and meander up through the Romanian countryside while figuring out how to navigate crazy Romanian road customs. Here are a few rules:

1. Center dividing lines are just a suggestion. Many times we had to brake and get over quickly to avoid an accident so that oncoming traffic could pretend they were in a Bond film.
2. On the bigger highways, keep one half of your car in the shoulder when you can’t see who might be passing in the opposite lane. Cars passing dangerously and unnecessarily is a way of life here, even around blind corners, so driving halfway on the shoulder is the safest way to help you avoid a head on collision.
3. Watch out for cars that stop in the middle of the highway and park there for no reason. They’re just sitting there. I cannot tell you why.
4. Always remember that people with BMWs or Audis are higher in the pecking order than you. If you are stopped at a stop sign on a narrow city street, they will pass you to show their superiority. Or if they need to make a right turn and you are in front of them, instead of waiting for you to turn first, they will speed up, pass, then jam on the brakes and turn ahead of you. It’s macho posturing, but you just have to accept that you and your cheap car are inferior and they are important…until you buy (or rent) a more expensive car. Then you are worthy to join their death race.

Luckily, we survived the roads and now had two weeks to explore the countryside in search of weddings.At the Babou Maramures hostel and campground in Breb, we are given advice by a Romanian artist: go to churches and community halls, because that’s where everyone registers and schedules their weddings.

We hop from village to village asking at churches and then spread out to stores and people on the street. “Existe nunta tradicional this weekend?” (Are there traditional weddings this weekend?) we ask again and again in broken Romanian.

At one store near the monastery in Barsana, the cashier made phone calls to friends and family. No luck – all the weddings were in the summer. She showed us pictures of she and her husband at a traditional wedding in August. Then she invited us to drive up the mountain to meet her herd of over 100 long-haired sheep; but after glancing at our car she realized that the road would be impossible for us.

At an open-air market in Ocna Sugatag, a woman sold us goat cheese and then yelled out our question to sellers at other stalls. The consensus so was that we’d missed them in this valley. They were all in August or the beginning of September. We moved on farther east into the highlands, spreading our search into other river valleys.

Finally, at another open-air market near the village of Glod, a twinkly-eyed, mustachioed man addressed us in English. His name was Bud, and he was a teacher in Oncesti up the road. Our conversation turned to our wedding search. We’re in luck, he said. He knew of two: one this Saturday and the next. He invited us to his guesthouse in Oncesti for coffee later that week to discuss our options.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Breb, Romania: Welcome to Maramures

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Text by Stax. Photos by Beej.

By the time we leave Romania, I’m going to be fat. They’re going to  have to roll me out onto the tarmac at the airport. Or better yet, just float me across the sea like a bottle.

After our long confinement on flights from Eugene to Seattle to Los Angeles to Oslo to Budapest, then the train to Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and finally our trip by car north to Breb, a nice open float doesn’t seem so bad.

When delicious food is combined with generous people who will keep feeding you until there is nothing left to feed you, it doesn’t bode well for the ol’ waistline. Our diet in Maramures consists of homemade broths and soups with tripe and other fats from various pigs, cows and sheep; potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, peppers and herbs fresh from the garden; mushrooms gathered from the hills; and bread. Lots and lots of bread that magically refills your basket when you turn your head away.

So Breb. Where the heck is it and why are we here?

It all goes back to last year. When Beej and I traveled through Romania, we were told that if “traditional” weddings were what we sought, we needed to head to Maramures.  And Breb is famously one the most traditional villages in the the region. So that’s where we be.

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Our tiny European-made Ford Ka bubble car, with its lawnmower engine, can barely handle the grades as we descend into Breb from the narrow highway zigzagging above.The fields spread down below us all the way to the base of the distant Gutai Mountains. The small fields are dotted with towering haystacks in that distinctive Romanian style – bell-shaped surrounding a central pole, which we are told keeps the water from rotting the hay over the winter and thus keeps animals alive.

We pass a big white church with two towers and lots of rustic wooden houses that look handmade. Smoke rises from chimneys, obscuring the view as the pavement degrades to dirt and mud scattered with fist-sized rocks unearthed by the recent rainfall. The road narrows even more as we struggle in first gear toward Babou Maramures Hostel. Sometimes we have to stop for long minutes to let teams of horses pulling wooden carts full of pumpkins, hay, or tree limbs pass us by. I feel like we’ve entered into the Shire–if we give ourselves enough time, we may just find Hobbiton.

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Elderly women in traditional dress (patterned scarves, baggy black dresses, wool leggings, boots) – some carrying mean-looking scythes across their backs from the fields – stop us for a chat. They can’t speak English and we can’t speak Romanian, but somehow we manage. The two most common phrases we hear:  “Buna seară” (good evening) and “De unde sunteti?” (where are you from).

“America,” we answer.  They nod their heads in amazement. “Ahhhh…Amehreecaaaaah.” Sometimes they raise their hand to mimic a plane, suggesting we’ve come a long, long way.

For our first night, we stay at Pensiunea Maramou, a farm bed-and-breakfast owned and operated by a local woman, Maria, and her mother. We had planned to stay at the hostel, but they were booked.

I can’t complain. Though the cost is twice as much as the hostel, the comfort and free meals makes it seem like a steal at 100 RON a night per person: a beautifully decorated room with hand-woven wool rugs and heavy sheepskin comforter on the bed for maximum coziness, plus an all-you-can-stuff-your-face home-cooked breakfasts and dinners made mostly fresh from the animal products on the farm. To top it off there is a nice view of the town from our room.

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That first night at dinner, we chat with Mihai, the Romanian head of an ecological NGO, and two Icelandic National Park rangers who are staying at the Pensiunea. They all met 15 years ago during a National Park exchange between Iceland and Romania, and the three have been visiting each other in their respective countries ever since.

(In a weird sort of coincidence, Mihai and his NGO, Romanian Ranger Association, had written one of the first papers detailing the environmental destruction of the planned Rosia Montana gold mine back in 2001, when it was first proposed. We had gone to the FanFest at Rosia Montana a year before and met the filmmaker whose documentary chronicles the movement against the mine. Small world we meet someone so influential in that movement, which grew to encompass the E.U., here in Maramures a year later.)

Our talk is only interrupted by Maria and her mother try to burst our stomachs by giving us more food or to admonish us laughingly for not drinking enough horincă. We try to explain that while they’ve been working up huge appetites working in fields and farms, we have been sitting in a car.

And we can’t be blamed for going easy on the horincă, a clear plum-based sort of brandy distilled by everyone and their mothers in Maramures. While all ţuica is strong, the Maramureş version, horincă, will clean your insides. One sip from my tiny shot glass and I feel like I’m breathing fire.200

So anyway, here we are in what could easily be Middle Earth, but on our own Fellowship journey to find traditional weddings.  We aim to spend the next week narrowing down our search.  And we’re starting, of course, with the wooden churches.

More on that in the next post!

 

Oslo, Norway: VIDEO – “2 Days in Oslo”

Fellow Misadventurists,

We’re taking a short break from project updates to share a video that Beej put together from our three day layover in Oslo, Norway!

By night we stayed with a great Norwegian/British couple, Per Kristian and Clare, in their flat in Oslo’s northwest district. By day, we made the most of the city’s incredible and surprisingly cheap (for such an otherwise expensive place) public transportation, which includes an exhaustive system of ferries, subways, trams, buses and trains. Though we will have to return someday to explore Norway more (perhaps to film a traditional Sami wedding?), the city of Oslo is completely charming and it won us over even in the short time we had.

The video has no narration, but locations are introduced in titles. There’s Holmenkollen mountain in the northwest, where a giant steel ski jump juts into the sky; downtown Oslo’s Royal Palace, parks and monuments; the waterfront harbor and the Alfred Nobel Museum, which honors Nobel Peace Prize recipients; the Oslo marathon in progress; and a ferry ride south to Hovedoya island, where we explored a ruined 12th century Catholic abbey while being stalked by a curious European Red Fox (don’t worry, he didn’t eat us). Enjoy!

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