I won a Honda 50 and went to Transylvania'
the story behind the book
I have often been asked 'Why Transylvania ?' The assumption is always that it must be about Dracula. Actually I had never read the book, nor seen the films. I was always fascinated by Eastern Europe - the 'dark side' - the place that nobody travelled to. I had a gentle introduction to Yugoslavia in 1963. it seemed a nice place, we made some friends, the landscape was beautiful. Roll on five years and I bought a scooter, a small one admittedly, but I was delighted with it and even more delighted when I won the money back in a competition. Then I discovered I could put it on a student train which cost £13 from London to Belgrade and a bit more for me. Off I went with heavily laden panniers, a rucksack and my brother's little blue tent.
When I got to Belgrade it was raining. There was no sign of the bike. it had vanished. I felt absolutely alien in a country where no-one spoke English and everything was in Cyrillic. I boarded a tram to the outskirts in the knowledge that a small campsite was up there somewhere. I remember the tram being so crowded that the conductor pushed people in with his foot! Luckily I had my tent and the rucksack. I found the site. It continued to rain. I managed to eat something in the site cafe by pointing to an item with a higher price which I assumed , correctly as it happened, was a main course. It was Pljeskavice - a sort of spicy hamburger with cream cheese on the bottom. I ate the same thing every night. Every day I went to the station to be greeted by a large woman seated in a cubicle at the end of the platform dressed in black with her arms crossed. 'Niet' ( or the equivalent) she said in response to my hopeful enquiries. it continued to rain. I hated Belgrade with an intense passion. After five nights I decided that somewhere in this city there must be a British consul. I found it quite easily. My memory is of public school types who said something to the effect of ' don't worry - we'll find it in a jiffy- its probably in some shed at the station'. It was. They were right. I was reunited with my trusty steed - damp but otherwise intact.
So off I went - 50 km to the Romanian border through empty desolate villages. What a revelation. Even the customs men were friendly. I felt immediately at home. I could make sense of the language. Everybody seemed genuinely delighted to see a foreigner, especially one on a weird Japanese bike . Everytime I stopped a crowd gathered to touch it and to look underneath. To my amazement the campsites were great with good hot showers and cooking facilities. When i got to Timisoara I was so surprised to see a big city I went clockwise round a roundabout. Fortunately there was no traffic. There were no shop signs but you could tell a shop by the people leaving with foodstuffs. I went in to be greeted by empty shelves with only a few tins. I bought a slice of an enormous round black loaf and a bottle of nameless beer with no label. I also bought a tin with pictures of beef stew on the label, only to open it to find it only contained kidneys ,one of my 'can't do' foods. i gave them to a passing dog who concluded all his birthdays had come at once.
In the next two weeks I went from Timisoara to Deva and then to Sibiu. I then went south to Calimanesti-Cozia, retraced my route to Sibiu with a deviation to Paltinis then to Medias and Turda. I was not brave enough to enter Cluj as the trams and trolley buses spooked me. I then headed south to Resita and along the hills back to Timisoara and the Yugoslavian border.
I loved Sibiu. it was an interesting city with good museums and parks. But most of all I loved Paltinis. I had never experienced such tranquillity and beauty before. The meadow flowers were awe inspiring. The endless rolling Carpathian foothills were carpeted with flowers and I was captivated.
I stayed up there for hours absorbing the landscape. I used to dream about it afterwards for at least 20 years!
In Cozia I was befriended first by the campsite barman who plied me with cognac and cokes apparently out of generosity, although looking back I wonder ! I met two students from Bucharest staying with their granny and was invited back to their grannies cottage for breakfast. I marvelled at the ferry acroos the Olt driven by current power and I visited the monastery of Cozia.
Heading north I found a great site just ouside the spectacular Turda gorge. There was dancing and general merriment in the evening and although i couldn't speak I felt remarkably at home. There were East German and Czech tourists so my smattering of German came in useful. In the morning I ventured across a rickety wooden bridge astride the gorge . Somehow at 19 that sort of risk doesn't seem important.
Finding my way to Caransebes and a rather lovely site featured on the front cover of the book. I met a teenager keen to practice his English with a shared passion for matchbox labels, one of my more eccentric habits! I then continued to Resita via nearly 100km of cobbles or pave as the French call them. It is testimony to Honda's remarkable engineering and the strength of the panniers that they remained in place.
This wonderful fortnight was engraved in my memory and I always dreamed that some day I would return. In 2007 my attention was caught by a photographic tour of Romania including places which I had visited in 1968 but also many new ones. I jumped at the opportunity to do a recce of the whole country and to see if any traces remained of the country of my memories. I was astounded to find that the countryside in Transylvania and Maramures hadn't changed at all. Maramures lies immeiately to the north of Transylvania hemmed in on three sides by mountains and on the forth by the Tisa river which serves as the border with Ukraine. It was where the communists used to send their political prisoners as far away as possible from Bucharest. It was also staunchly independent and resourceful and utterly resistant to Ceausescu's collectivisation programme. I determined that I would return alone the following year to have a really good exploration of this wonderful landscape. At that point I didn't know that I would return twelve times in the succeeding five years!
A chance event in 2008 set me off on a trail. The ikon painter with whom I had been booked to stay had made a mistake and farmed me out to a bed and breakfast run by a friend. This friend, a young woman who had lived in Paris for seven years, was extremely hospitable. It took her 30 minutes yo ask me if I would like to see a distillery run by her uncle which was only 150 metres from the house. My jaw dropped when I went inside and saw a scene reminiscent of a medieval ritual as elderly people tended the large copper still with buckets of fruit pulp. With a history of photographing Scottish malt whisky distilleries for 10 years I saw immediately that here we had a timewarp back to the age of family stills in Scotland - virtually abolished by the alcohol reform act of 1833. OK so the fermentation was of fruit rather than barley but the elements of the process were oh so familiar to me.
I set out to find more of these stills or cazane as they are called in Romania. As in Scotland one still would be owned by a family but lent out to many others to distil their fruit. At this stage I wasn't committed to a project. One final element was necessary. In 2010 I was recommended to read a book by a friend regarding village life in Maramures. ' Along the enchanted way' by William Blacker describes the 6 years he spent living in a small isolated village in Maramures learning a truly traditional way of life. In the end his hormones won out and he set off to pursue and finally live with a Gypsy girl he had met on his first trip. It is a captivating book and a travel classic. It was just enough to persuade me to return, this time with a serious intent to record the endangered practice of village distilling before the 'health and safety' brigade finally closed it down. I began to do this in 2011 and it led in 2015 to the publication of the book ' In search of the Village distilleries of Maramures.' www.maramuresvillagedistilleries.com
One thing remained to be done. This was to try to capture in words and in images the impact that this extraordinary place has had on me over a 45 year period. I received lots of encouragement in this, particularly from Eddie Ephraums my friend publisher and mentor who thought it was about time I produced a photographic essay rather than an information book with photographs. It has had a long gestation period requiring much patience on my part, as designs and alternatives were juggled and tried out. its final airing was this year at the Open studio workshops in Mellon Charles Wester Ross where it had such an enthusiastic reception that we were able to bring it to a conclusion. From the beginning we were designing for the photobook collectors market who are artistically literate and extremely pernickity. This necessitated a limited edition of 50 signed copies with an unusual naked binding where the sewing is visible, and a print enclosed in the book. We knew that the very nature of the product would command a high price and I was only too aware that this would preclude it from successful sale in Romania where incomes are much lower than in the UK.
It was with this in mind that I approached a young Romanian poet Antonia Zavalic ( now Dubovici) and asked her to translate my words. I felt that her aesthetic sense would grasp my meaning which was more poetic than literal. In this I believe I was absolutely right and she embraced the task with enthusiasm. We have been able to produce a paper back of extremely high quality which is enclosed in a hand printed sleeve.
The fine art limited edition
The Romanian Translation
Broombank Publishing 101 Malcolm Road Peterculter Aberdeen Scotland AB14 0XB