Somewhere in Romania in 1988 I took refuge for an hour or so in an abandoned manor house. I was travelling through the country on a bike. The towns were hard places. Food was scarce, restaurants were grim, and there was always the sense of being watched. So I’d buy whatever rudimentary picnic I could find – tomatoes, stale bread, tinned fish, ice-cream wafers – and head off the road, to somewhere I could not be seen, to eat lunch and write notes for the travel book I was working on. The house was out in open land in central Transylvania, on whatever route it was I took between Cluj and Sighisoara. No one there but a bay horse, and I have a photo still of the horse and my bicycle beside the porch. It was a single-storey house, spacious but not very grand, the sort of house in which one of Turgenev’s country gentlemen might have lived.
It’s not really fair to use a Russian for my reference but it gives the picture. We British have so few references for Romania. What do we know about the place, besides the Dracula myths? Ceausescu. We know about the Ceausescu regime now, but shamefully I was hardly aware how bad it was until I had entered the country. There was scarcely anything published about it in English then; no journalists reporting there. Herta Müller was yet to tell the inner story. Looking back before that time, there seems to be a great gap: as recently as the 70s, in the early Ceausescu years, Romania was considered one of the nicer places in eastern Europe, so much so that the Ceausescus got to ride in a carriage with the Queen when they came to visit. As to what preceded that, there’s little beyond the works of Olivia Manning and Patrick Leigh Fermor, tales of some romantic prewar place. The war and what immediately followed it seem to be barely known at all.
- Georgina Harding
- Friday 27 April 2012 22.55 BST