The Walk (Part I)

Trip Start Apr 01, 1979
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

All I can say now is that it seemed like a good idea at the time. And looking back it really was one heck of an adventure. Just as well, though, it was also one of the dumbest things I've probably ever done, yet I never once felt any real danger. There was only one line in the guide book, but for us it would be quite a doozy. "The best way to reach the fortified church of Biertan is by the four hour hike through fields and wooded ridges from Brateiu, the first rail halt east of Medias, via the towns of Atel and Dupus (both with fortified churches of their own)." When I read it, laying comfortably in the bed at my studio apartment in Dupont Circle several weeks before my plane left for the wilds of eastern Europe, I thought that it sounded like fun. I love to hike, my traveling companion loves to hike, and well we should do it I decided. I couldn't get it out of my mind afterwards. It had to happen. And it did, of course with a few hiccups along the way. Forgoing the rest of my wandering thoughts, I'll delve directly into the story...

We had just left the somewhat bustling city of Sibiu that morning via bus. The coach ride, which had winded its way through the Transylvanian hills for the hour long drive to Medias, often passing cars going uphill around a curve while blaring whatever radio signal the driver could find over the speakers, was actually a fairly pleasant trip. We arrived at Medias on the morning of the first day of their annual Medieval Festival (apparently one of the largest in the region), a jovial event that apparently brought tens of people to the small town of about 25,000. Of this festival, we knew nothing. In fact, my Rough Guide to Romania barely spared more than a few lines on the not-so-intriguing town. They did point out that a hostel had opened off of the central square some two or three years prior to our arrival. The place, dubbed Schullerhaus by its German owners, was in fact still in operation although I saw no other guests or, for that matter, purveyors to speak of.

When we finally did find someone, the room ended up costing $25 a night for both of us, which included breakfast. That's part of what's so great about Romania. Sure it's not cheap like some third world countries where a beer is a nickel and a room a dollar, but it's not too bad either even if the beer cost a dollar and a half and the room around twenty-five. But all of this is beside the point. The point is, Medias was the jumping off point for The Walk, and it was still early enough in the morning to get going right away.
First things first, we asked the kindly Saxon hotel owners (Transylvania was once a Saxon stronghold, with several waves of immigrants leaving throughout the 20th century so that now there are only a few left; in truth I actually suspect that the hotel people may have moved here from Germany as opposed to being lingering remnants of an old culture, but what the hell do I know anyway?) about the possibility of the adventure we were planning. His reply was the first of many of the ilk:

"You're going to walk to Biertan?!"
"That is a long way away, you know."
"Yes, I know, but I think it's manageable." In my mind, I was thinking that four hours is hardly that long.
"How will you get back?" His eyebrows shot up when he asked this. Also, behind him sensing perhaps all the commotion, an old lady entered the room.
"Well, I don't know perhaps we will take a taxi back." I hadn't actually thought this through that much to be honest. I certainly wasn't going to turn around and walk back, so that did seem an important and quite overlooked question. My traveling companion, to her credit, stood silent. She could hardly claim any moral high ground though, as she had agreed aggressively with my desire to march through the Romanian countryside on our impending journey.
"There are no taxis in Biertan! It's only a small village!" He chuckled heartily and turned back to the old lady. I only caught one word of the German he prattled off to her and that seemed to be "mom." I did get the gist of their conversation though, and I'll attempt to sum up:

"Yo ma, these stupid American idiots are going to walk to Biertan, and wait for the best part, they want to take a taxi back!" Laughing ensued. "Make sure they pay for their room in advance, you nitwit." "Yes, mother." "When they turn up dead after a few days let's rummage through their things and burn what isn't useful."

Okay, perhaps that wasn't the exact word for word dialogue because in fact the Saxons proved quite useful. They called a bus company that passed through Biertan on its way to Medias and gave us the times. There were two afternoon pick-ups, one that was far too early, and one that seemed more manageable in the early evening around 6 pm. After their usefulness was exhausted and their incredulity became tiresome, we bid them farewell. They wished us luck as we shuffled out the door towards stop number one, the train station.

Backing up just a bit, I will admit that we were not completely unprepared for The Walk. In fact, in my back pack we had stashed a few necessary items. First, we had a large bottle of water, and since this was a summer day, that was highly important. Also, we had brought a few snacks with us, mostly cookies and chips, but enough to get us through, at least through a short walk in the woods...

So off we went, headed for the first train to Brateiu. When we arrived at the train station, just before 11 am, we quickly asked the information desk when the next train was headed in the Bretaiu direction. Apparently, this first rail halt on the other side of Medias was not a popular destination. In just about 2 and hours, there was a train leaving. This put a damper on our mood. My traveling companion vomited in her mouth. I cried. Then suddenly, I thought, why don't we just take a cab? We headed for the line of vehicles nearby and came across a sleepy old cabbie. Since I knew better than to trust a third world cab driver, I decided to negotiate the price in advance.

"How much for a ride to the train station at Brateiu," I asked in broken Romanian.

"One lei!" he nearly shouted back. Since that equated to about 30 cents in U.S. dollars, I thought he must have misunderstood. I asked again. He held up his thumb. I turned to my traveling companion. She shrugged. Then from behind us another cab driver began to say something to our old man. The price swiftly changed.

"One hundred lei!" he boasted. He struggled to write it down for us as it was clear we didn't grasp the change in numbers. The jump in price was too far, but I was invested in The Walk. Whatever the case, we decided to get in the cab. Once we did, he turned on the meter, effectively ending all negotiations. At the end of the ride, the bill was 10 lei and we happily paid. Yet before that could occur, the ten minute drive to the train station at Brateiu had to be accomplished, and while the small village was all too easy to find, the train station was less so. Upon entering the town, our driver pulled up alongside some gypsy impersonators. (I say gypsy impersonators because surely a group of real gypsies could not possibly look as much like gypsies as this fine group. It was a family of five or six, dressed in baggy quilt-like clothing with the odd earring thrown in to round out the face. They were all reasonably dirty and their dark complexions only got darker behind the thick mustaches [on the men and women]. They also were riding down the road in a horse drawn buggy, and they certainly weren't Amish for those of you who are familiar with that lovely sect.) He asked the gypsy impersonators for directions to the train station. They gestured and blabbered, and after some minutes we drove on. Suddenly our driver turned into a large courtyard type location. There was a semblance of a circular drive going back about two hundred yards. In the middle of the drive were three teenage boys without shirts or shoes (obviously not on their way to a restaurant) cutting the high grass with sickles. Ominous? Oh yes. The curious part of all this was that there was absolutely no semblance of a train station anywhere. Our driver seemed disoriented. He stopped the car at the rear of the drive and began looking around feverishly. He then got out and walked up to one of the houses bordering the drive. He then turned and walked out of sight. I turned to my companion and let out a deep sigh.

After a few minutes the driver returned. He led us out of the cab, I paid the meter, and he pointed down some steps which were overgrown with weeds. This was, apparently, the train station. He then shook our hands and drove away. Suddenly it hit us that we had been dropped off in the middle of nowhere with nary a bit of language skills. The thought, I'll admit, was a bit troubling. I peeked down the steps and did indeed see some railroad tracks below. There may have been a sign. Other than that, this was hardly a train station, but close enough I reasoned. It didn't matter anyway, as we were to only begin our journey here. From there, though, we had little more information. Back on the main road, there was what appeared to be a store. We walked past the sickle-wielding teens and into the store. We asked, vaguely, for the way to Atel. The lady behind the counter was quick to respond. She began pointing and speaking quite rapidly. I knew, at best, seven words of Romanian. I got the general impression that there was a fork in the road at a gas station. At the fork, we should take a right and bada-bing, we'd be on our way. I have no idea how we figured all of this out, nor if it was even remotely close to what she was saying, but what the heck, it was a start. We began to walk on the path beside the road. Soon we neared what appeared to be a fork. A dirt road stretched off to the right with the houses of the town on either side. In the middle of the fork was the gas station. Or rather, there was a building with three horse drawn carts "parked" in front.

As we approached the gas station, a woman passed us a steady clip. She turned back to look and then spoke, "I heard you speaking English. Where are you from?"

"We're from America!" I blurted out. How could I not be happy? I mean we were absolutely stranded in some ways. We spoke quickly about why we were there and she replied with the words that changed my mood from sourly scared to hopelessly optimistic in an instant: "I know the path to Atel. I can show you the way." It was the stroke of luck we desperately needed and not a moment too late. She asked to wait a moment while she entered the gas station. When she emerged we walked with her up the street. She told us about her experience with some Australian students, and that she had learned English from watching tv. I was impressed.

"You speak so well!" I wanted to make her feel good, as I didn't know what we would have done without her intervention. She quickly blushed. Incidentally, she only had about 4 teeth, all of which seemed to hang precariously out of her smiling mouth.

As we approached the edge of town she gave us some final instructions. "Go up ahead and take a left. Then once you get to the fork in the road, take the right fork and keep walking straight up through the woods and over the hill to grandmother's house you'll go." I'm paraphrasing here, she may have said Atel instead of grandmother's house, but my memory is a bit shaky.

We thanked her profusely and headed off feeling great. We walked up the road took the left, and proceeded immediately to get lost. For as soon as we turned left there was a matter of dispute. Up ahead less than 50 meters was a sharp turn to the right off of the main route. Was this the way to Atel? She had said there would be a fork, but not a sharp turn. I looked at the road to the right, though, and indeed it led directly up a hill into a wooded ridge, just as the book had said. It had to be the way. She hadn't clearly indicated how long it was before the fork, so perhaps this was it. We decided to turn right and go up the hill and into the Romanian forest we plunged.

After about 5 minutes walking straight up hill in the forest, there was another fork in the road, splitting the path in three directions. Dumbfounded we just stood silently and swatted mosquitoes away from our face. Which of these paths could it be? I chose left, since it seemed to be the road most traveled. Up ahead on the path I saw a large pile of dung and reasoned that this must be a well traveled route. Indeed I was wrong, for after 15 minutes in walking the path ended. We descended back to the fork and chose the middle path. It also ended. Finally, we tried the path to the right. Nothing! It was then that the helpless feeling began to creep in again. Frustrated, we determined that indeed the sharp turn was not a fork at all. In fact, how could one have ever thought that a sharp turn was a fork? We stumbled down the hill, about an hour older than when we had visited before, back on the edge once more of Bretaiu. We met up with the dirt road, and walked about a mile ahead. There before us, the path split. We chose to go right.

As we walked along, a horse drawn buggy came from ahead. It had a young boy at the reins with an old babushka in the back. I yelled out, "ATEL!!" and pointed to where they have come from. "DA!" he yelled back. Finally, we had chosen correctly. We continued to trek up the hill and towards another distant wooded ridge. It was the first time I really got a chance to take stock of my surroundings. It was an absolutely magnificent day! The temperature had to be around 75-80 degrees, with only a small cloud or two in the sky. The pastures that we trampled were full of summer flowers, pushing their way up between the high green grass. Looking back upon the village of Brateiu in the distance, I saw that its position, nestled against small mountains and facing an expanse of open fields, made it appear as an idyllic vision. When I had walked through it earlier, I had noticed the broken and dirty homes with their rusted gates and doorknobs. Trash was scattered upon its dirt roads, and skinny children without shoes hid as the plodding foreigners approached. Yet from here, it was beautiful. I thought to myself that it was probably just as beautiful up close, for different reasons. As we entered the forest, the route became even more pronounced and 20 minutes later we emerged looking down upon a sprawling valley. Below I saw a few homes that were the entrance to the village of Atel. We had made it. The first step had been taken.

Continued in Part II...
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