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Romania Road Trip - Easter in Moldova, Part 1

Romanian Moldova, not to be confused with Moldovan (Moldavian) Moldova aka. 'Republica', as Romanians sometimes disambiguate, is located in the country's eastern region beginning with (and this is often contested) Buzău in the south and ending at Suceava in the north - also contested. The locals in these border counties and towns often seek to disassociate themselves from Moldova but especially from the appellation, 'Moldovan'. 
"No, no," a Suceavan will say, "I am Bucovinean".

Romanian jokes involving Moldovans generally portray their protagonists as drunk, aggressive, and somewhere at the crossroads of nit and wit. Sometimes all at once. As one story goes, two Moldovan shepherds are minding their sheep when out of the blue one hits the other with his cane, knocking him down.  The victim gets back up without saying a word and resumes the sheep minding, but after a little while he turns to the other.
"Listen," he says, "that knock you just gave me, did you mean it or were you just playing around?"
"I meant it." The first shepherd answers.
"Okay, good, because I won't put up with silly jokes like that." 

To cut the stereotype short, Moldovans - those from Vaslui county in particular- are to Romanians what Floridians are to Americans. This is so you understand why the people of Suceava are quick to remind you they're actually from Bucovina and why those from Buzău insist they're from Muntenia. They are, of course, technically correct.

Anyway, on the first day of our mini road trip to Suceava, where we were going to spend Easter, we drove to Piatra Neamț by way of Sovata.  If I had to make one of those maps where people identify specific regions by a narrow, preconceived notion, I'd slap the label 'baths' on the small town of Sovata. I don't know what kind of baths precisely (mud, salt, hot, or Roman) but I imagined lots of old people lounging like lizards in various indoor and outdoor pools and lakes, both natural and man-made.

It wasn't exactly like that.

The town was eerily empty. While the winding uphill road to the town center was full of hotels and pensiuni, the sidewalks, terraces, and vendor's stalls stood bare.  Earlier, somewhere in Mureș county, my wife had read about Ciuperca Mica (The Little Mushroom), a well reviewed local restaurant where we decided to lunch. After a short uphill walk and several minutes of confusion caused by the Google Maps pin, we found ourselves sitting at an upstairs window table with a lovely lakeside view.

A promenade ran around the lake and green hills of dense firs and budding trees rose beyond, but the lack of activity and the dreary, overcast sky also made for a somewhat joyless spectacle. Our dishes, a chicken stew in a mushroom cream sauce with polenta, and the bacon-wrapped chicken roulade stuffed with ramsons  made up for the weather, and it started to feel like we were on one of our gastro-tourist jaunts outside of Romania.

It turns out the lake is quite the attraction during high-season, when tourists fill the town and the wooden deck below our window is jammed with white, plastic recliners, and on them, probably, old people lounging like lizards.

After several picturesque roads, a visit with nesting storks, and a mountain pass through the Bicaz Gorges, we drove up into the foothills of the nearby peaks, where patches of snow still lay in clumps on either side of the road, before descending into the city of Piatra Neamț. It is a town I'd heard much about but never visited myself, and for which the title 'pretty' would be pasted on the Preconceived Notions Map of Expatro's Romania, just northeast of Sovata's 'baths' label.

I noticed a distinct style of commie block architecture with sloping roofs giving them a mountain town character, but they are still gray, brutalist, and not at all attractive. On the other hand, the steep and forested foothills of the eastern Carpathians flank the length of the town in lively greens and form a demarcation point at its eastern tip, where it unfurls into the gently sloping hills and plains of Moldova. It's almost as if the valleys behind opened up and spilled a little city onto the first available expanse of level land along the winding course of the Bistrita river's descent from the mountains.

We stayed at an impressive pensiune named Cochet (pronounced 'coquette'). Impressive because it was spotless, comfortable, had easy self check-in, and provided on-site parking; an unlikely checklist in the Romanian hospitality industry. We then walked into the city center along Traian boulevard -- decorated for Easter with blue and red bunny and egg shaped illumination -- in search of a good glass of wine. We found it at Noir, which seemed to be the only place around that was open  late on a Tuesday night, and ordered a bottle of Syrah (French, sorry) and an assortment of cheese. After the meal at Sovata earlier, it was the only dinner we needed.

Piatra Neamț is also known for its cross-town cablecars (telegondola), which run from the train station across the width of the city up to the top of mount Cozla. So we drove down and got tickets for the first trip of the day, on the stroke of noon. The ride was somewhat dreary, what with all the concrete and deteriorating commie blocks below, but Bâtca Doamnei lake in the distance and the surrounding mountains made for a nice sight, which was the highlight once we were up top as well. We stayed long enough to snap a few shots and went right back down, leaving the windy peak and empty souvenir stands behind.   

There is a sameness to every small and mid-sized town in Romania. Grey blocks in various stages of neglect; decay, disrepair, cracked cement and uneven sidewalks are all part of it, but the county of Vaslui, where we were off to now, is considered to be suffering the worst of it, with a good amount of despair thrown into the mix. Which is why I really wanted to see it. Could it really be that bad?

To be continued...


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