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Romania Road Trip - Easter in Moldova, Part 2

The sun shines bright and clouds are sparse in an otherwise clear sky. The dash is showing 23℃ as our car dips and weaves between the green, yellow, and fallow fields of Neamț county. It is a quintessential European drive. Vaslui county, the Wild East, is just around the bend, or at the next straightway, I'm not sure where exactly but I know it's coming up because Roman is twenty minutes behind us and the small white and red mileage markers are already indicating Negrești, our destination in Vaslui, is 35 kilometers ahead.

Then I see it, a large billboard coming up on the right side of the road. All county borders have signs of this type, usually affixed to long poles, illustrated with the Romanian and EU flags, the national and/or local coat of arms, and, in block letters, Bun Venit in Judetul _  (Welcome to _ County). 

Not that we're expecting a welcoming committee, but...Pulled over on the right, no more than ten meters beyond the 'Welcome to Vaslui County' sign, a grey Dacia Logan is parked on the grassy shoulder, while its driver, having walked several steps down an incline, is in the process of relieving himself on the soil, and the good name, of Vaslui county.

We were in the right place.

But the 'Wild' East turned out to be a bit of a letdown. Everything else was just, normal. Romanian, but normal. It's true that the traditional homes in the villages we passed were smaller than those in Transylvania. I don't recall seeing any multi-level homes. There were also noticeably more horse-drawn carts on the road, and even in the fields, where most farmers used tractors for plowing some were instead driving teams of horses ahead of their plows. It was obvious this was the poor side of the country.

In Negrești my wife's grandmother welcomed us with a lovely soup for lunch, borș included. We chatted, looked at old family photos, and visited her large orchard with its flowering fruit trees. She showed us her grapevines, which yield about 800 liters of wine every year. There is still some in our fridge. Actually if you really want to know, there's not much left and and I'm drinking a cup as I write. It carries the aroma of grape must but tastes like a very light wine, with medium acidity and low tannins, somehow like a Rose, and, because of the low alcohol content (about 8%), it's easy to go through several glasses without noticing. I think I'm still on my first...

Roxana's grandmother, who was once a teacher, gave us a bit of a regional history lesson. She told us about the village of her provenance, not very far from Negrești. It was razed and rebuilt several times over the centuries. The Tatars, she told us, stormed in and took the men as slaves, then locked the women and children inside a barn and set it alight. It was eventually resettled by Bucovinean shepherds. Such is life at the confluence of civilization and barbarism. The only threat now is her 18 year old dog who's gone senile and recently bit her.


On the way out of the county, somebody with a VS (Vaslui) plate drove under the descending gate at a rail crossing, almost got stuck on the tracks, and then maneuvered around the other gate before continuing on their merry way. Aside from this ominous incident, there was no reason to visit Vaslui just to drive around aimlessly. So instead we drove on towards Iași, Moldova's largest city, an important historical and cultural center, and, at one point, the capital of Romania.

But first, a stop at Neamț citadel.

The citadel, originating in the 14th century, is perched on a hill in the small town of Targu Neamț. It is no longer whole, but there is more than enough to get a feel for the history. We visited the cool interiors -no air conditioning was needed here - where hundreds of years ago boyars sat at council tables, dined together, and stabbed each other in the back. Perhaps what was most surprising was the small size of these rooms. We tend to have an impression of medieval fortifications as massive structures fit to house hundreds, maybe thousands, of people, but, apart from their imposing outward appearance, they aren't particularly spacious by modern standards.

As we left, a guide was talking to a recently arrived school group about the raised bridge leading up to the gate. When the citadel was constructed, he explained, there was a ramp built from the small hillock where the ticket booth now sits straight up to its main gate. But Stefan the Great (and Holy) had a look and said, "No, you nincompoops, this won't do at all, we've basically laid out the red carpet for the Turks here."

So he had the builders raise several pillars which curve around to a smaller side entrance, ensuring that the only way in was precarious as well as highly defensible. Any invaders would face a barrage of projectiles as they made their way on the narrow bridge fifteen meters above the ground. Like many other things in Romania, the fortress was never destroyed in a dramatic battle for survival, the Ottomans simply asked their Romanian vassal to demolish it, sometime in the 18th century, after which whatever was left fell to ruin all on its own.









Right, so onwards to Iași, after another very brief stop at the birthplace of John Branch just outside Targu Neamț. The writer, also known as Ion Creangă, led a tumultuous life of political agitation and philandering, but left a lasting impression on Romania's literary scene with his witty social commentary and an ability to harness into writing the Moldovan soul. Didn't take pictures, but there are plenty online.

Iași has come a long way in the four years since our last visit. It looked more dynamic and modern, the city center rehabilitated, its Palace of Culture the bright jewel of a resurgent Moldova, and the traffic just as chaotic. In other words, a city on the move. We had dinner with in-laws at the Unirea Hotel, whose restaurant also offers panoramic views over the city, and we drank a celebratory Prosecco and ate a very decent meal at a very decent price. But Iași was only a stopover. Aside from a breezy pick-up line overheard on the street the next day ("Excuse me miss, you've been sold damaged merchandise," to a long-legged brunette whose jeans looked as though they had nightmares on Elm Street) we didn't stay long enough to get a real feel for the city and its denizens.



 


One thing I will say about Iași, and about the north-eastern part of the country in general, is that service appears to be on another level than in the south or west of the country. People are more service savvy, more willing to engage, more pleasant and helpful in commercial transactions. Before leaving Iași, we ate at Vivo. In my (North American) opinion, they serve Romania's finest burgers by far and some of the best anywhere. We hit the place during the lunch rush, yet the staff were so efficient and the service so quick I had to check the GPS on my phone just to make sure we were still in Romania. I don't know who owns the place or who trained those people, but they deserve an award.

On this satisfactory note, we left for Suceava

To be continued.....
(Part 1)

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