I took advantage of the good weather to make a trip out of Bucharest whilst I am able to do so. The stately old locomotives of CFR transported me to the town of Turnu Severin on the northern shore of the Danube and the border with Serbia It is a journey of about 360km and it takes 6 hours. The town lies on the line from Bucharest to Budapest via Craiova and Timișoara, this is technically an intercity journey though the speeds are such that most of the time you can read the mile posts. First class cost the equivalent of 20 GBP and for that luxury I got a comfortable seat and a carriage that was running at about 20% capacity. First class also means some pestering from enterprising beggars who assist with baggage and try to sell you reading material or prayer cards before the train departs, they are harmless and I was glad of the help putting my luggage overhead. I had booked a short break at Turnu Severin's premier hotel (extremely reasonable pandemic pricing) overlooking the Danube mainly so that I could wake up in morning, draw back the curtains and see Serbia. I am besotted with the place and my absence from that country is painful for me. Perhaps seeing but not touching adds to the pain..... but like any lover feels, even the pain is better than nothing!
Anyway this post will be about Romania not Serbia. Romania is my home and we get along just fine and right now it is the best place for me to be.
The scenery from Bucharest to Craiova is desolate and was not helped by a thick mist and the lack of any fresh spring vegetation. Imagine Lincolnshire with nodding donkeys (Romania is proud of its petrochemical industry) and some abject poverty by the tracks and you may get the picture. Endless, large, empty fields, stunted copses full of miserable looking trees, drab villages with no signs of life.... Craiova itself is where the majority of Romania's electric locomotives were made. They are lovely old ladies in dirty cream and maroon livery with characteristic portholes along the side. The town has a look of Derby to me and historically must have served a similar function. To the West of Craiova I was transported to scenery that was reminiscent of the Pennines; bleak bare rounded hills, sheep and bogs. All that was missing was stone weavers' cottages. There was plenty of time to ogle the rolling stock on the railways. It depresses me that nearly the entire freight system of Europe is German owned, and their swanky new locomotives proclaim who is really in charge and where ultimately all the wealth finds itself. There are also some trains that are ex-Scandinavian railways and must be living out their retirement here in Romania after her own engineering industry was crippled. (Reminiscent of England is it not?) My joy was seeing a locomotive proudly proclaiming that it was Yugoslavian. As Yugoslavia has not existed for 20 years, was this an engine purloined by the Romanians on the break-up of Yugoslavia or was it one still working for masters on the other side of the Danube? I may investigate further. Later on my stay I saw some chemical wagons from Serbia which were waiting for a locomotive to take them home, so either tale is possible.
The people who work for the railways are lovely. They proudly wear their uniform, which is probably identical to that worn in under Socialism. The smaller stations which can hardly see more than a couple of trains a day are all looked after by station masters, there is obviously zero money for investment and the whole system is crumbling and held together solely by dignity and pride.
Turnu Severin was a much nicer town that I was expecting and I will return. It reminded me of central Chișinău but without the Russian Imperialist architecture. The town is well planned with parks and a great fruit and vegetable market, the supermarkets haven't yet wrecked local trade with their aggressive self-serving capitalism. There are great machines which dispense fresh milk into containers of your choosing. Turnu Severin also has very impressive Roman remains and an Ottoman era fortress. The local Orthodox diocese seems wealthy and has administrative headquarters in the swankiest building in the town. They are building a fine new church in the centre of the town and I spent some time watching the frescoes being painted. Less welcome to my eyes was the presence of NATO flags on many of the public buildings, they seemed to be mocking Serbia across the water and despite Romania's refusal to recognise Kosovo, you can see where this is heading. Also I loathe the flag of the EU and it is everywhere, not even a hole can be filled in the road without it proclaiming to be part of some European initiative. Surely the Romanians are perfectly capable of doing these things by themselves? The EU must be the major source of the necessary funds for the endless and open corruption that take place here.
I took a day trip to Orșova, it is 30 minutes on the train and there is an impressive ride past the Iron Gates, the controversial Socialist era dam across the Danube. It is certainly an awesome construction. Old Orșova disappeared under the waters when the dam was constructed and was rebuilt up the hill. It is unimpressive even by Communist era housing standards but in holiday season there are plenty of boats for hire up the Danube to the magnificent gorge and beyond. No such luck for me. No boats and no sign of a forthcoming holiday season. A pox on this pandemic and all who are manipulating it for their own ends! The town is however situated in a lovely bay, the air was clean and my phone thought I was in Serbia so I was happy to be there. Outside the town runs a major route through the Balkans to Turkey. Lorries from the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, Hungary and Romania thunder past at such a rate you'd swear there was no world crisis.
Of note are the two main churches. The Orthodox had lovingly rebuilt their church to St Nicholas further up the hill than the floodwaters. It was a beautiful, peaceful and well loved place and you'd never know its lack of years. The Catholic response seems to have been to salvage a few statues but to build a monstrous 'church of Sauron' style menacing dark concrete structure, in which the statues sit somewhat uncomfortably. From what I can gather it was the only Catholic church to be built under Communism in Romania. Make of the contrast what you will.
I've written enough. Just thought it was worth painting a picture for you, wherever you are.