The Hotel Restaurant was cavernous, dark, and quiet, with notes of faded communism in brown and worn orange. Rows of round tables set with immaculate silver service; crisp white napkins and fresh candles. We stepped softly around the tables at the entrance. In the stilted hush, the clink of an agitated wine glass rang clear across the still restaurant as my hip collided with the edge of one tabletop. It startled a woman in a striped apron who was lying down on a banquette near the kitchen pass. She abruptly got up and scampered through the swinging doors to the kitchen, that rocked nonchalantly back and forth on their hinges. Above us lights fluttered on one by one until the whole space gently glowed and music began to play – soft rock ballads in English. Our waiter appeared, tall, blonde and ultra polite. This was our first encounter with Andrei, a local Romanian man in his early twenties, with the beginnings of a beer belly under the starched white shirt.
He took in our crude attire, all the way down to the socks, a slightly better option than our sopping wet sneakers. “Two for dinner?” I apologetically ventured. He graciously extended his hand, palm upwards and gestured widely across the restaurant. “It would be my pleasure,” as he showed us to corner table by the window.
I imagined meeting locals, drinking fiery Palinka, learning traditional folk songs, and eating hot bowls of goulash and dumplings. But our June timing was slightly too early for the mid summer hikers, and way off course for the skiing wonderland of winter.
Earlier that day Ryan and I set out from the Transylvanian village of Sinaia. We left most of our luggage in the care woman selling paper cups of coffee at a tiny train station, and boarded a clunky green cable car 2200 feet up the Bucegi Mountains, located in the Southern Carpathians of Romania. I’d heard there were multiple walking routes and huts to stay in called Cabanas where you could purchase cheap and simple meals. We had a map of the vast mountaintop. I imagined meeting locals, drinking fiery Palinka, learning traditional folk songs, and eating hot bowls of goulash and dumplings. But our June timing was slightly too early for the mid summer hikers, and way off course for the skiing wonderland of winter.
Fat droplets from a morning shower slid down the windows of the cable car as we rose steeply through a pine tree gully. Encased in cloud, we could only catch glimpses of our surroundings. Above the mist the sun was searingly bright, revealing a plateau of fresh green grass and limestone. Valleys of unmelted snow in the distance. I waved to a group of school children ready to board the cable car we had just come out of. As they descended I didn’t realise they would be the last people we would see until nightfall.
The cable car station was hulkingly cubist, a retro soviet flashback of a building. Inside there was fake wood paneling halfway up the walls. Upstairs, a cafe had a small television mounted on the wall and a fridge full of Pepsi – but no sign of staff.
Trails were marked with primary colours and simple symbols. We chose the blue cross trail. It took us past mushrooming limestone rock formations. Fields of golden buttercups punctuated with other wildflowers in blue, pink, and purple. We slipped over ravines of dirty unmelted snow and clung to crumbling cliffside paths. The fog was tidal, expanding then folding back in on itself. One minute we were laughing at the copious amount of trail markers, and the next desperately searching for one through the white out. We walked to The Heroes’ Cross, a towering steel monument built in the 1920’s and the tallest summit cross in the world. From the Sinaia village it looked like a little star on top of the Christmas tree. The steel beams were carried by ox, horse and donkey to this lonely precipice. The ground fell away to sheer cliffs clad in shades of green. I hung my legs over the edge leaning forward to watch the moving mist until Ryan got too nervous that the rocks I was sitting on would slip away.
We crossed huge flat meadows of grazing cows making a medley of gentle dongs from the bells around their necks. Climbed ski slopes underneath stagnant chair lifts, idling over the heads of grazing sheep. We prepared tuna and cheese sandwiches and ate them beside the very definition of a babbling brook.
While scrambling down shingly hills we kept watch for bears.
While scrambling down shingly hills we kept watch for bears. During his reign from 1967 – 1989, the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu outlawed hunting and issued permits only to top members of the Romanian Communist Party and a few of his cronies, Khrushchev, Honecker, Gaddafi and the like. Through wildly un-sportsman-like tactics he came to acquire a world record in hunting trophies. After the Romanian Revolution, the fall of communism and Ceauşescu’s death by firing squad, hunting returned to normal but today 60% of Europe’s brown bears are found in Romania.
I was musing on a story we’d heard of campers who hadn’t properly cleaned their cooking utensils before they went to sleep and woke up to a vicious bear attack, when I heard an approaching rhythmic thudding. Suddenly a big and dark creature ran past us in a blur. Instant, crazed panic. A foreign sound escaped from Ryan’s throat. I stopped dead on the trail. Then we realised it was just a large and friendly wild dog. He jogged contentedly beside us and we named him Sherpa.
The Hotel was all white and tall sharp angles surrounded by pine trees, the last thing we expected to see.
As the evening came, it began to lightly rain. We descended a valley through dripping grass where we hoped to find accommodation. A looming building of about seven stories seemed to be the only sign of life. No homely Cabana in sight. The Hotel was all white and tall sharp angles surrounded by pine trees, the last thing we expected to see. A group of benign wild dogs hung out the front. When we got within the last 50 metres of the building Sherpa stopped his congenial trotting and sat down suddenly with his ears alert. He couldn’t be coaxed to walk another step with us so we had to say goodbye. After watching us for a minute he turned around back the way we had come.
Sodden and exhausted we entered the lobby. Huge, fake marble pillars and menacing brown bear rugs. Across the lobby to our right, a middle-aged woman was reading a magazine behind the reception desk. Big breasted and bossy she arranged our accommodation for the night then her cell phone started ringing. Metallica – Enter the Sandman was the ringtone. She answered it and then pushed the heavy key towards us. “It’s ok, it’s ok,” she said and batted her hand at us dismissively.
Walking through the empty hotel was like tracking through an old movie set. A time warp of corridors the colour of clotted cream, carpet stains, dusty pot plants and incongruous furniture. A man rushed past, recklessly herding his wife and two small children out of the elevator with a couple of suitcases. We paused on the landing on our way to our room on the 4th floor to watch the single car drive away down the one small road before getting swallowed up in the blackness of the pine forest. Night was falling.
We were in a country where every taxi driver we met had never heard of our country. And we were sitting on top of a slightly lumpy bed on top of a mountain range where a few days walk to the North would take us to Dracula’s castle. We sat drinking Romanian mini bar liquor and watching bad Eurotrash music videos. The fridge didn’t seem to be working so we called the front desk. They sent up the Maintenance Crew, which consisted of two very short ladies; one young and thin with a tight pink t-shirt, and one older and rotund with short bobbed hair and a brown polo shirt. They fussed around the fridge for a few minutes but we couldn’t understand each other, and then they left.
In the basement ‘Wellness’ area we soaked our tired bodies in the Jacuzzi, a security camera mounted directly above us.
In the basement ‘Wellness’ area we soaked our tired bodies in the Jacuzzi, a security camera mounted directly above us. The Maintenance Crew scuttled back and forth, back and forth, busy with one task or another. Back in our room we cleaned up as best we could – wearing fresh socks instead of muddy shoes and fashioning my scarf into a wrap around skirt – we went downstairs for dinner.
“I’ll have the merlot.”
“And I’ll have a Pilsner please.”
After we ordered our drinks he said that he had spoken to the maintenance crew.
“They told me that your fridge is as cold as it can be.”
“Ok, thank you very much.”
“Are we… Are we the only ones here?”
“Yes.” The Waiter replied.
What if we hadn’t taken the particular route that led us to this place? Then the giant many-roomed building would be empty and redundant. As we drank wine served in 100mL bottles we felt like insane millionaires who had hired out the entire Hotel just for themselves. Part of me didn’t want to keep the staff up too long. But the other part of me ordered three courses and a digestive. The food had a certain camp quality – nothing fresh – but Ryan had a Schnitzel as big as his head and I persevered with my gluey tortellini in a blue cheese sauce.
Late that night as we came back from a torchlight walk in the forest. The whole cast was sitting on a couple of couches in the foyer having a nightcap, Napping Chef, My Pleasure waiter, Metallica receptionist and the Maintenance twins. The next morning the receptionist gave me some bright pink pills for my backache, and we set off for another day of being alone on top of the world.