What exactly is it about the Romanian town Sinaia, a clean-aired mountain jewel, that makes it seem so enchanting? My first visit was with my ex, Jeremy around one year ago, and although we were charmed by its small-town ski-resort looks and its pretty castles with fairy-tale turrets, I thought then that there wasn’t much to keep a city-dwelling culture-seeker entertained. My second visit with Ayesha and Hannah, saw us tramping the same road routes in light rain on a whistle-stop day out from Bucharest. We observed the church-goers carrying wreaths of twigs for a festival at the white stone monastery and imagined the lives of the monks and nuns we saw entering small wooden doors. We enjoyed our tour of Peles Castle, but I remember little about it, except that we had to queue, it was busy and that we had to wear plastic bags on our feet.
Was it at the Romanian cafe, in a tudor style courtyard next to the Castle, that my Sinaia conversion began? Hannah, Ayesha and I sampled their traditional Romanian desert, papanași on our visit. These ample bosom-shaped fruit and cheese filled doughnuts deliver a sugar and fat hit, which you really must try but are advised to share.
Sinaia sits at the base of the Bucegi mountains, and it looks picturesque from any spot. I already know that the weak sunshine of early Spring, will make a walk around the slightly rambling estate of Peles Castle almost magical. I understand now that the true purpose of the town of Sinaia must be for facilitating new romance. For that reason, I decided it would be an ideal location for a short break with my new squeeze, Nick. Any negative thoughts about having experienced some of the attractions of Sinaia already, are eclipsed by my excitement about sharing them, this time with him.
Sinaia is also a small ski-resort with impressive ski runs, but we are not enticed by the lure of winter sports; we just want to breathe the clean air, walk leisurely around the mountain roads and discover nice places to drink tea and hold hands.
A huge poster of the late King Mihail, greets you as you exit the the train station. It reminds me of how much Romanian people admire their royals. It looks as if it was taken in the 1940s. I fantasize that we are on a literary retreat, thinking of Mihail Sebastian, the Romanian Jewish playwright and writer, who regularly travelled here, to work on his novels and plays. His book Journal is a fascinating and disturbing diary he kept between the years of 1933 and 1945. I was told by the friendly bookseller who recommended I buy the book, that he managed to survive the persecution of the Iron Guards and the second world war, only to meet an untimely demise when he was hit by a truck in a road accident in 1945.
The place we have chosen to stay is a small hotel, Villa Retzeat, which can be reached by walking up a mountain road towards forests and mountains for ten minutes. It is a place of stained glass windows, faded art-deco glamour and dark wooden ceilings and walls. In the UK this would be a costly boutique experience, but here it is a stately home masquerading as a budget hotel. I imagine myself in a sleek dinner gown, rather than jeans as I walk down the winding staircase. It is noticeably quiet; the hotel seems to have absorbed the sentient, stillness of the mountains. The hotel is the perfect setting for my fantasy of being on a literary writer’s retreat, or equally my first romantic weekend with my new squeeze.
We see a couple of stray cats at the entrance of the large wooden door, and Nick strokes one of them before we enter. The friendly manager of the hotel welcomes us and asks us what we are doing in Romania. Nick engages in a brief cat-based conversation with our host. I can hear some high pitched wailing which I assume to be our host’s child. She says that the she is sick and she will take her to the vet’s tomorrow. I assume it is a mistranslation. There is some more cat talk, I move to admire a vase of dried physalis in the reception room.
The next morning we walk for thirty minutes until we reach the gondola which takes you right up into the Bucegi Mountains. It is possible to take further trips across the mountain range, but we decide to take just two legs of the journey. The first stop takes us up to 1,400 metres above sea-level and then second, up to 2000 metres and a panoramic view from the top of the world. At this point, I realise that Sinaia is not only a place of clean air and fairy-tale turrets, but also a location of astounding natural beauty, and I am smitten.
The Gondola is a very modern, cable-car which is busy with skiers, snow boarders and hikers. At times the journey is nerve-wracking as it makes near vertical ascents, but the views above the forests and up into the mountains are beautiful and awe-inspiring. We meet a German skier in our cable car who lives in Brasov. He tells us that the ski routes at Sinaia are quite challenging and probably the best in Romania. He rebuffs Nick’s suggestion that snow boarding is anything like skate-boarding. He suggests we try skiing sometime.
The sun is bright as it is bouncing off the snow at 1400 metres above sea level. there is pumping disco music coming from a cafe and all around us skiers are sweeping about. We are not wearing the best footwear for snow walking and we slip and slide along the snowy path, until we reach our lunch location the Romanian Restaurant; Popas Alpin Cotas 1400.
There is an amazing mountain vista view from the bright front room of Popas Alpin. It is draped with a mass of green spider plants, creepers and succulents. The back-room is where we sit. It is dark and the walls are decorated with the trophy pelts of many hunts; bearskins, foxes, lynx, wild boar and birds. Did I mention bearskins? It’s a taxidermist’s joy but vaguely troubling for a vegetarian. We joke that we have left the room of life and entered the hall of death. Some of the waiters here are oldish, in their fifties or sixties and they seem to take great pride in their work. Our waiter is of this ilk and he is also charming and patient. We manage to communicate simply with him in Romanian and order our vegetable soup.
The soup is very fresh, tasty and delicious and has a strong, sour flavour. Nick and I engage in a borscht-based conversation and I try to resist the urge to consult wikipedia. Nick tells me that a basic borscht soup made of vegetable herbs and roots would have been all that medieval Ukranain and Polish soldiers who were starving would have had to eat. According to History Today website, Borscht emerged in Ukraine between the fifth and ninth centuries AD, “Borscht began as slightly fermented cow parsnip roots” these were hedgerow herbs “usually collected in May, before the shoots became too tough and stringy. The flowers, stems and leaves were then chopped up, placed in a clay pot with plenty of water and left to ferment until a sour-tasting liquid had formed.” (www.historytoday.com)
Borscht was seen as peasant food in 15th Century Poland and Belarus. It spread to Russia later, when it seems beetroots became a feature of the broth. Borscht stock can be bought in every supermarket in Romania and it is supposed to cure all known ailments. However, it does not taste good when drunk neat as I discovered, when I purchased some by mistake, assuming it was apple juice.
The next morning we are made a big omelette breakfast by our lovely, chatty host. It is quiet, we are the only guests. This fits well with my fantasy of the retreat. I ask our host if her daughter is feeling better. She looks confused then laughs and says, “oh no, I don’t have any children,” I explain that I heard a child crying yesterday and assumed it was her daughter, “well that was my daughter, but my daughter is a cat. She is making all those male cats come to the house; what can we call them in English, lovers? ” We discuss it and we can’t easily find an a better word but I say, “maybe suitors is a good word?” She continues, “Well she knows the suitors are there outside and she is crying and wailing”.
I am now crying and laughing mainly from the embarrassment of mistaking a cat on heat’s cry for that of a child. I must remember to listen more attentively to cat-based sounds and conversations.
On our way out of Sinaia, we stop to eat lunch at a mezze style cafe before we leave the town. We drink cappuccinos and complete our first Guardian quick crossword together enjoying the warmth of the February sun. My squeeze notices a black and white cat nuzzling the legs of customers near to us and coos as it jumps onto the lap of a customer. I don’t even notice it as I am only attuned to the movements of cute dogs, not cats. We joke again about my his affinity for cats. As we leave the cafe, bouyed up by our joint crossword.. success, (we only cheated on one impossible question) I screech as I see the black and white cat walk under the wheels of an oncoming car. This was a shocking moment, as life seemed to punch us in the chest with the inevitable death of the mangled cat which twitches and eventually is still. It seems only I observe the incident, and no other passers-by notice. Nick hugs me tight and says, “I am sorry you saw that”. I murmer something daft like, “I thought you were able to able to protect cats, because of your special connection”. It seems the world is actually a cruel place where occasionally magical talismans are unable to protect careless stray cats. We hug in silence on the nearest bench in the sun for around five minutes.
Thanks to Hannah Caller for Sinaia pictures. (photos 1, 3 and 4)
Mihail Sebastien, Journal 1935-1944 https://g.co/kgs/XaTfDF