Romania may be a small country, but its varied geography provides for so many different regions, in what the people, the traditions and the scenery is concerned. Romanian villages can be worlds away one from the other, depending on the region.
Many villages in the mountain/hillside area are doing quite well, as they rely on better resources, richer soils and the benefits of tourism. But if they’re not well connected to a nearby town, life can be also very harsh, especially during winter, when the roads are blocked and there’s no way to reach a pharmacy or hospital if needed.
On the other hand, many villages in the lowlands are not doing so great, as the soil is poor, rain is scarce during summer and crops are not plentiful.
My parents were each born in a different village in Vrancea county (in the Moldavian region of Romania), an area that stretches through all relief forms, from the curve of the Carpathians (Vrancea Mountains) through the hillside (Subcarpathian Hills) and all the way to the lowlands of Siret river. As a child, while spending my holidays in the countryside, I noticed the cultural differences even between these two villages, which were only one hour away by car.
The village where my mother lived during her childhood is in the hillside. The main crops growing there are corn and grapes and the area is known for its vineyards. There are also many fruit orchards. People are quite cheerful and love a good glass of wine (or several, for that matter).
My father’s village is in a poorer lowland area. The soil is dusty, in summer it gets crazy hot and the people are solemn, dressed in dark clothes and quite silent. Although they grow everything from wheat to corn, beans, grapes, watermelons and even sunflower, the crops are not very rich and they barely suffice for everyday needs.
In a way, you can see Romanian villages as a puzzle of small farms, each family owning several plots of land, a house with annexes, barns a bit of land around, one or two horses or cows, a bunch of chicken and at a pig or two. Every villager grows small crops on the lands around their house, such as vegetables for their personal use.
In spring, broody hens roam the courtyards with their chicks, staring suspiciously at everyone who approaches them (and especially at the cats).
During summer, children play outside all day long, climb cherry trees to gather cherries in their laps, have fun by the water (there’s a small river passing at the outskirts of the village, in the vineyards area), splashing around or fishing, and noisily eat watermelons and corn on the cob.
In the evenings, villagers gather near the corral at the village entrance, to wait for their cows to return from pasture (local gypsies are paid to take care of the cows all day long). People like to gather there earlier, to gossip about what has happened during the day. Then, once the cow is brought to its stable, families prepare for the evening. Cows are milked, animals are fed and a rustic meal is prepared. In this area, especially in the summer, people will be happy with just a bit of fresh milk and cornmeal porridge (mămăligă), some fried eggs, a bit of cheese with tomatoes, or other simple foods. After dinner, they wash (in this village, drinking water is collected manually from wells, while washing water is mostly rainwater gathered in large barrels and pots) and go to sleep, not before saying their prayer. Life is simple, and often happy enough, as long as there are animals and crops to live from.
The life of young people is somewhat different. Many of them go to high school in a nearby town and try to find work there, never to return.It was the case of my parents, and many others. Others hang around working the land or getting an underpaid job in the area, and try to survive. The village is now more and more deserted, with old clay houses empty, because nobody wants to live in them. Lands in the area are not worth much, so people are not rushing to buy, and the village remains inhabited mostly by the elderly…
Lonely grannies spend their summer days sewing and their winter evenings spinning wool or weaving bed or wall covers, rugs and carpets. They sigh looking at photos on the wall, of their children and families, brothers, sisters and uncles and aunts, the whole of them to be preserved for eternity in a collage with a handmade wooden frame.
A collection of objects, now almost useless, take you back 50 years, to times when houses didn’t have electricity. People would use lamps to light up their rooms. To iron their clothes, they would use a heavy iron heated by putting hot coal inside, or by placing it on the stove, and they would wake up to an alarm clock that needed to be manually turned every evening.
This has now changed, although many houses are still warmed by stoves made of clay or ceramic, washing is done by hand, with handmade soap and heated rainwater, clothes and objects around the house are still handmade. Of course, this is changing more and more, and soon it will all be gone, to leave place for something else. We have village museums all over Romania, showing houses just as the one my grandma still has. The thing is, these houses still exist, so do small wooden churches, handmade carts pulled by horses, haystacks, wine barrels and tool sheds. You only have to take a few steps from a small town to find them.
Rural tourism in Romania, unfortunately, is only developed in very few places, most of them in the North of the country (Maramureş, Bucovina, Transylvania). For a Romanian, it’s certainly easier to take a bus to the nearest village and maybe find shelter with a family for a few nights, but for a foreigner, that would probably be quite difficult if not part of an organised tour.
On your own, you could try the village of Pietroasele (Buzău county), where an entrepreneurial family has created accommodation in old wine barrels, and they are receiving tourists in their cellar to try out local wines, preparing tasty food for them, and telling them the story of wine. It’s called La Butoaie and you can contact them by phone to reserve a barrel (details here). You can get to Pietroasele by train, or by minibus from Buzău (so you can easily include this destination in a trip to the Berca mud volcanoes).
Although La Butoaie probably provides the best accommodation/wine tasting experience, other villagers also have cellars and sell wine, so you can tour the cellars in search of the perfect taste. And since Pietroasele is a famous vineyard area, at the beginning of September a great feast takes place here: the Tămâioasă celebration (tămâioasă is a type of white wine, sweet and with a strong fruity/flowery aroma). As part of the celebration, grapes are crushed by barefoot young girls in a ritual recalling the making of wine just a few years back, when wine presses were not used yet. Watch a video about this tradition, here.
If you would like to visit rural Romania on your own and don’t know where to start, you can write me a message and I’ll try to help you make a plan.