The whole idea is that I walk across Europe, that’s the only condition of this whole journey – no further necessities or additions, yet somehow it seems that there are ideas I have about what this does and doesn’t entail that are pretty hard to change when it comes to dealing with real life circumstances. My idea of a walk across Europe doesn’t involve walking on roads, it’s boring, dangerous and hard on my feet. Yet that’s exactly what I’ve had to do this past fortnight, I’m crossing a mountainous area and those mountains are covered in a metre or two of snow. Everybody tells me not to walk there and I listen to them. Maybe I could do it in snowshoes, I don’t know. I don’t have the experience to be certain. Besides, what would I be swapping for – snowshoes wouldn’t make it easy, they’d just make it possible, I’d still be floundering around in the hills for hours, committing myself to remote areas with minimal food, water and shelter access. At least on the roads I’m making progress. But, as the hundredth van rushes past me and sprays me with dirty slush, as I break my stride to step into the verge to avoid a lorry passing me so close I could touch it, as a car overtaking on the opposite side suddenly appears at my shoulder in a shocking boom of sound and air, as I trudge and trudge and trudge on boring tarmac, I look at the hills and wish I was up there, floundering in snow.
If I could walk on back roads I’d be happier, but they’re a network of veins in this area, very few roads leading between valleys but plenty of valleys with a single road leading off the main road, you can go up into the mountain and back again, not cross to the next valley unless you want to go on a track and do that snow floundering thing again. I take side roads where I can, interesting detours that get me away from the lorries.
I’ve walked from Bratca to Beiuş to Ștei to Campeni to Brad to Deva. It’s a wriggling route that tries to get me as much into the mountains and away from the main roads as possible. I’ve taken detours up side valleys in order to get to places to sleep and that has given me even more of a taster of Romanian village winter life. I hitchiked away from the main road up a dead end valley, the road covered in a few cm of packed snow, the orthodox priest who had stopped for me was driving a 4×4. He lived in a tiny village nearby, he said, he knew how hard it was to travel in winter. We passed through a couple of villages, roofs layered in a foot of snow, snow shovelled paths from doorway to road. Eventually he dropped me at a bridge, there was the village bar next to it and I decided on a hot chocolate and cognac.
It’s hard to describe the sparseness of some village stores and bars. Some are more modern, the bars in particular – leather seating, TV blaring dancy pop music in the corner, generic cityscape or flower pictures on the walls – the kind you get in bargain warehouse style shops in the UK. Then others are, well, unrenovated; dirty walls and tattered furnishings, just a place for men to come and sit and drink and chat, as they have done for years, without minding the surroundings. Often there’s still a TV in the corner but showing folk music instead, the kind of fast violin tunes that I hear from many houses, the videos all showing happy contented plump women in traditional white blouses embroidered with colourful flowers, they stand and sing in sunny flower meadows or outside a snowy church. There’s a shocking emptiness to some of these places, I guess I’m used to seeing rooms that are designed to soothe or sell. Think about it – in supermarkets or particularly corner shops in the UK, no space is unused, there’s advertising, slogans, bright lighting, additional cardboard displays. It’s an assault to the senses that has become so normalised that a large room with minimal strip lighting and products piled haphazardly on handmade wooden shelves, perhaps with handwritten labels, perhaps with prices written in marker pen on the products themselves, seems dingy in comparison.
The majority of the food I find in the small shops is low quality junk, empty calories, over processed. Crisps, tinned pork pate, biscuits, instant coffee, chocolate, preserved meat like salami, processed cheese in plastic tubes, presliced cheese in plastic. Very few sell fruits and vegetables – maybe people buy them in towns, maybe they grow their own, I’m not invited into enough houses to be certain. I tend to buy my main food in towns – nuts, dried fruits, oats, better quality salami, crackers. My diet isn’t great at the moment, I’m too tired and it’s too cold to put thought and time into preparing meals, during the daytime it’s too cold to stay still for a long time and in the evening I just need to shovel calories into my body and sleep.
This village bar, the one I stopped at for hot chocolate and cognac, it was a dingy one. The most ramshackle pool table I have ever seen in my life, baize rubbed smooth to a dirty grey green, duct tape covering the many holes. The furniture was just a wooden table and worn metal chairs. The silence of 4 men greeted me, I’d chatted a little to one of them outside and I now heard enough Romanian to know that he was explaining where I’d come from and where I was staying in the village but not enough to understand the remainder of the conversation. I stayed quiet, dipping my stale packaged croissant into my black coffee, pouring in the cheap cognac and ignoring the complete lack of eye contact or acknowledgement from anyone else in the room.
It’s been like that quite often over the last few weeks, most people aren’t explicitly unfriendly, they’re just kind of uninterested. Broadly speaking, in Ukraine I was used to being a novelty, it was nice, people wanted to know about me, who I was and what I was doing there. Here, if I say hello, people say hello back but that tends to be it. I have gone a day or two with no conversation beyond “buna ziua”. Maybe we could put it down to winter conditions, everyone is a little shut down and focused on what they need to be doing, no time to stand around and chat in the cold. Or I’m so different I’ve crossed the line from unusual into wierd, wandering around from village to village trussed up with two sticks, gloves, hat, scarf, big boots and a massive rucksack when any sane person is leaving the house as little as possible (remember when I dressed as wonder woman and walked into the centre of Chester and nobody would make eye contact with me? I think it’s that all over again). But there’s a closed feeling to most villages; I think a lot of Romanian life takes place in private – behind the shuttered windows and high fences that most properties present to the public.
Regardless of the road conditions or where I’m actually walking, the basic situation is that it’s cold and snowy. The fields are covered, every tree branch carrying a thin layer, the concrete lumps of bridges, posts and infrastructure all softened by their individual rounded snow hats. There’s nowhere to sit, let alone sleep. I’m not intimidated by cold camping but I am definitely intimidated by snow. How do I put up a tent without that sticky powdery stuff getting everywhere? I just can’t imagine it and I have, so far, avoided it. Couchsurfing, Airbnb, friends of friends, walking up to a roadside pension, creeping into barns. You name it, I’ve done it these last two weeks. There’s a particular intimidation to walking through a snowy landscape and not knowing where you’re going to sleep that night. It wasn’t so bad the first week, a man called Gabriel, based in Bucharest, was calling in his Apuseni contacts to help me out. On the first night I could stay on the grounds of someone’s house, not in the house as they weren’t there but I could camp on the property with permission. It was my first day back to walking after 3 weeks off in Bucharest and my apprehension grew as I trundled up the hill from Bratca. First I had to pass the pension where I had such a wierd experience the night before I stopped walking in December (I didn’t share it online but they were closed, grudgingly offered to open for me which involved putting all the furniture back into a freshly painted room, and then came into the room at 9am on the day I was due to leave and removed the curtains. I was tired and emotional and ready to stop walking and that simple act of subtle hostility made me cry.) I stopped outside the building and drew a line in the snow – here was where my January walking started, no more tiredness and stress, I would step forward into positivity. I walked upwards into thicker and thicker snow, none on the road but it was all around me on the hills and fields. The property where I had permission to stay was knee deep in snow, the gate frozen shut. I wiggled the latch open, knocking and shaking the metal loose, then explored the place for perhaps an open shed. None there and I decided to sleep on the large covered porch, rather than putting my tent up. It had a fine coating of windblown snow but I was good and warm, although it’s very strange to open your eyes in the morning and see snow next to your bed, a moment of sensory dissonance. My water bottle burst overnight, frozen solid. My brand new aluminium bottle, brought here by my brother for Christmas, popped on the first night. What a fool to leave it in the open air. I’d been slow and stumbling that night, shocked by the first day of walking, only able to do enough to keep me warm and safe before collapsing into sleep, I hadn’t quite completed the full successful winter walker checklist; keep your water liquid!
The next night I was to stay with friends of Gabriel, just given a number to call when I arrived in a village. Sometimes I make the journey happen, sometimes it happens to me and I just follow along; that was one of those nights. I was picked up in a bar and taken to one house, driving up in the snowy dark, not really knowing where I was going, sitting in the single roomed house of a man who lay in bed and smoked cigarettes while his dog fussed at me and I ate a large portion of a bag of pastries which had been thrust in my direction. I didn’t stay in the house I was promised, instead the man who was going to take me there said I could stay with him instead, a cabin built into rock. I said OK, it didn’t matter where I was. He pointed me in the direction of the village the next day, he was leaving himself to go and work in Spain, he walked around turning off the electricity and water as I packed my things together.
Down the snow packed track to the village and onwards, I found a cheap Airbnb ahead. Airbnb opportunities in rural Romania are scattered and it was great to find one so close, and cheap too. I wanted to hitch the final miles to the small village but no one would pick me up (hitching close to sunset makes you suspicious, as it would be in Wales too) so instead I had to walk a horrible 3.5 miles in the dark on the side of a fast road, shrinking from the cars rushing past me. I arrived in the silent village to a surprise gathering of Romanian youth; the children of the home owners were both back from their work as care home staff in the UK and having a New Year’s reunion with their friends. I drank everything they offered me – mulled wine, water, tea, tsoika (homemade spirit), sat with them to eat barbecue and retired to a bath and bed as I quickly lost the ability to speak.
I walked a solid 19 miles up and up on a mountain road to sleep in the base of a mountain rescue team up at the ski resort of Vârtop. That was the most spectacular day, starting on the flatlands with the mountains ahead and wriggling up into them, back and forth on the curves of the ascent, snow getting thicker, coating and dribbling from the trees, constantly falling in fine flakes, collecting on my hat and coat, walking all day, timing my breaks, not allowing myself to stop for too long, finally seeing the lights of the village ahead in the dark and arriving at the base too tired to speak to anyone, going straight to bed and lying there, body too painful to sleep, only making conversation the next morning before I left.
A free day off in a garish bnb in Garda de Sus, courtesy of Gabriel once again but here it was that his contacts ran out. He’d been incredible but I was on my own from now on and still didn’t feel ready for camping in the snow. I gave myself a talking to – first of all my budget cannot handle the cost of a bed every night and second of all, what are you carrying all this kit for if you’re not going to use it. This is where it gets hard? Step up. At least try it and stop wriggling away from it. I did, kind of. The first night out I slept in an open garage, underneath an empty house. I’d spotted each sleeping possibility that day, the empty derelict house with open doors and windows, the half built house, the open barn with a good bouncy pile of hay (that one was sadly far too early in the day), the empty garage with a pile of snow in front, indicating no cars pulling in or out. All noted. The garage was full of wood and building materials but there was a sleeping mat sized space for me to wriggle into. As I sat in the back of the garage, writing my notebook and waiting for dark, I heard a noise. It was a stray dog with sad eyes who was too lacking in confidence to bark at me (a rare quality in Romanian dogs who tend to be aggressive) and slunk away when I tried to make friends with him. He came back in the night and sniffed my head but ran away again when I made a noise.
The following two night I was able to find couchsurfing places (a website where fellow travellers offer free accomodation); they were both almost on my route but not quite and it meant walking as far as I could each day while still leaving enough daylight hours for hitching successfully far up into mountain valleys to find each house. The first night was strange and unsatisfying; the young host asked me for money to stay there, spent most of the time flirting with her newly arrived boyfriend, car freshly abandoned as far up the track as he could drive it, and worst of all, didn’t make a fire in my room until I arrived.
The place was an old fashioned farmhouse, double layers of glass at the windows and wooden floors, it was utterly freezing and if I hadn’t taken a bottle of hot water into the bed with me I’d have had a miserable night. As I walked away from that house the next morning I wondered what the hell I was doing. Here I was, following a snow covered track a mile back to the centre of a village, for me to try and hitch four miles down to the main road where I’d walk all day then hitch to another valley where, at the top, an unknown walk away, awaited another house. Were all these time sapping contortions I was making just to avoid snow camping really worth it?
That night was wonderful though, it was a tiny cottage high above the valley and to get up to it I had to cross a stream and follow a track thickly covered in snow. Eventually after an hour of climbing in knee deep snow I found the house, the owners called it a deep meditation, they stayed here all winter alone, rarely visited, the tracks inaccessible by vehicle, dug in until the thaw of spring. It was a peaceful and welcoming place, erasing the strange false hospitality of the previous night. Even better, thick snow fell overnight and I had the wonderful experience of walking 2 hours down to the road in knee deep snow, following a different path to the south this time, a quicker way to get to the road. The dogs of the house were excited to see me, bounding around and barking, the small black one followed me for quite a distance. First we had to walk a long curve of hillside, a thin line of depressed snow was my only indicator that a path existed, thick flakes fell and whirled around me, I carefully stepped on, using my walking poles to balance me. We came towards trees, the thin line leading into a gap in the branches and I heard the other dog barking in the distance. Black dog stopped and looked behind her, I judged it was time to encourage her to leave and ushered her away from me. She didn’t want to go but I hissed a few times, made it clear I didn’t want her and she began pushing through the snow towards home. I walked on towards the forest and, after a few minutes further, a huge body pushed past me. It was the other dog, bigger and shaggier, he bounded in and out of the trees, disappearing and reappearing on the track, shivers of snowfall in the trees showing me his branch shaking passage. He came with me all the way down to the road, pacing with me as I trod hip deep in powder snow, knocked snow from hanging branches to lift them clear of my path, stood in the silence of the white and black and looked at my GPS to be certain of my placement. I even slid down one part of the steep hill on my bum, rather that than fall awkwardly. It was as if the dogs had decided I shouldn’t be without a companion that day and made sure I came safely down the hill. Or maybe he just liked adventure. I had to send him home too, once we reached the road it seemed like he’d just continue on and I didn’t want to make that mistake again, accidentally keep a dog for 10 miles.
After a night in a pension in Brad there were two more days of walking before I reached a day off in Deva and I was determined to sleep out for it. The road between the two places was almost motorway, a European road, trans continental and I felt the difference. Totally cleared of snow and regular lorries running fast. It was deeply unpleasant to walk along and I was very glad to see a side road running parallel to it that I could escape onto. Immediately I was walking more slowly on packed ice and taking a longer route as the road wriggled and rose into low hills but I didn’t care, the relief of not being oppressed by heavy traffic was immediate.
There’s very little colour in this landscape, snow shrouded, the brightness of white turning all the browns and greys to black. I saw the valley ahead, twisting between rises of land, I could see the scattered villages that I would pass, each one with its own high church spires. There was a monastery close to where I assessed I might stop for the day, before a large patch of forest. I wondered if I might have the guts to knock on the door of the monastery and ask for shelter, rather that than sleep in the woods and think of wolves. I did neither in the end, a perfect barn presented itself, fenced and snow covered. I checked the ground for prints, not wanting to be surprised by a shepherd returning to fill this place with 50 sheep, it was pristine, I didn’t think I’d be disturbed here. I could sneak in at the back and, fenced off in the corner from the sheep trampled inner floor was a small area full of haybales and straw on the floor. I made a bed from the straw, stacking bales against the open slats of the wall to protect me from windchill. It wasn’t long before the straw began to give me back the warmth of my body and I slept a cost night, woken only by wind buffets and mouse rustlings. In the morning there was blown snow far into the barn floor, more had fallen overnight. I left a small pile of breadcrumbs and broken biscuits for the mice and exited the barn carefully. A final 14 miles on packed snowy road until my Deva day off.
It’s been a hard slog, punctuated with moments of exultation at my surroundings. I appreciate the beauty of the snow but it’s bloody hard to walk in. In Deva now and I’ve come through the Apuseni area, immediately south are the Carpathians and next I have to think about how to cross them. The simplest way is to head directly south on the E79, but I am extremely loathe to spend an entire 90 miles walking along the side of a busy road; even an hour is too much, a whole week would be tortorous. So I’m looking at options, some mountain roads are closed due to heavy snowfall and avalanche. It’s a toss up between what’s navigable and what’s bearable. I’ll find a way. One more week and it’ll be the end of the mountains and hopefully the end of the heavy snow. I’ll be pleased.
During this journey I’m raising funds for Target Ovarian Cancer – my own cancer 7 years ago led to the realisation that ovarian cancer is not diagnosed in many women until an advanced stage and Target Ovarian Cancer do their best to improve early diagnosis, fund life-saving research and provide much-needed support to women with ovarian cancer. If you’d like to donate, click here. https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/onewomanwalkseurope