Cartisoara, The Heartbeat of Romania

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They say home is where the heart is. Whether for you that means where your family lives, where you grew up, or wherever you happen to be living at the moment, home is where your warm and fuzzy memories have been patched together like an heirloom quilt, the place you’re relieved to see again after vacation, where you greet your cat each day after work while he largely ignores you.

One thing I absolutely love when we travel is the chance to experience a place as the locals do. This doesn’t mean I’ll pass up a fantastic tourist attraction when we see one, but I want to experience a place that’s authentic, one that – when we’re visiting and it’s unfamiliar – offers us a unique window into someone else’s life. Like holding up a mirror, we can see their similarities, despite the differences in language and religion, geography and history. When we share their traditional food, walk the same ground they walked as kids, and watch them with their families in their home, it leads to a deeper understanding of culture like nothing else can. For me, meeting up with our Romanian friends in Cârțișoara, camping in a random field by the river, and spending the better part of an afternoon with their family gave me a sense of the heartbeat of Romania.

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Village of Cartisoara, Romania

The village of Cartisoara is located nearly in the geographical heart of Romania.  Its 1000+ inhabitants live in modest houses sprawling along both sides of the pretty little Cartisoara River. Immediately surrounded by flat farmland and wild fields, the jagged line of the Carpathians is clearly visible from town, fading into ever paler shades of blue.  The area around Cartisoara is very similar to where we grew up in North Idaho, from the weather and forested mountain ranges to the clear, cool river meandering through the valley.

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Arriving in Cartisoara in the early evening, we were greeted by a lone cow meandering down the main road through town. This was definitely our kind of place.

Camping in Cartisoara

Searching for our two Romanian friends we were meeting, Larisa and Romi, we slowly rolled through town, stopping frequently for double-parked cars haphazardly filling our lane.  Nearly every front porch was occupied with groups of family and friends socializing, lounging in the cool evening breeze after the suffocating heat of the day. Despite its diminutive size, the town warmly enveloped us, the night air alive with bursts of laughter and the lilting song of Romanian chatter.

After some confusion in finding our friends (we were searching for them by the wrong church on the wrong side of the Cartisoara river), they walked all the way to the main road, flagging us down on one of our passes through town. Grateful they’d found us and excited to see them, we followed their instructions as they directed us across a small bridge, down a narrow gravel road along the river. When the road abruptly ended in a huge grassy field with several wooden cabins and tents, a raging bonfire, and a handful of folks milling about, we realized we’d arrived at our camping destination for the evening.


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When I wondered aloud who all the folks were, Larisa explained that she’d found an invitation for a concert that night in the field and thought it might be fun.  Plus, it was a free place to camp in Cartisoara.

Though it was dark, it looked like a great spot so we pitched our tent at the edge of the field, then stretched out on a blanket to watch the stars with Larisa and Romi.

Looking back, it was one of our most memorable nights of camping ever.  We ended up with two unexpected furry visitors to the campsite.  The first was a tiny kitten that Larisa named Noroc – Romanian for “luck.”  Tiny but surprisingly socialized for a wild kitten, he indulged my adoration of all things fuzzy and allowed me to snuggle him all evening.  He spent the better part of the night asleep in the hood of my sweatshirt.  Noroc was our first visitor in the next morning, and he was soon joined by a delightfully fuzzy, slightly destructive foal that wandered around the campsite, nibbling on tents and poking at them curiously with one hoof.

Any place with a snuggly kitten and resident baby horse get an A+ in our book.

Noroc the kitten visits us while camping in Cartisoara, Romania
Our first camp guest in the morning is Noroc the kitten, a repeat visitor from the night before.

While we were lounging and looking up at the starts, when one of the group members came over and invited us to the bonfire.  We joined the larger group while I tried desperately to find a frame of reference for what we were seeing.

Who were these people?  Most of them weren’t speaking Romanian, so what were they doing there?

Someone kept a steady stream of music blasting out from a couple of huge speakers, but they didn’t have a live band or musicians – it wasn’t really a “concert.”  Everyone was quite young, spoke at least some English, and they seemed to be a mixed group of nationalities. Part of the field appeared to be set up like a work site with signs they’d been living there for some time. It was like a small California commune in its 1960s heyday.

Finally, someone explained that they were a group of craftsmen who had volunteered to come to Cartisoara to re-create a certain Romanian building traditional for the region.  As volunteers, they were provided with minimal room and board (free field camping) while they completed their project. When they finished the project, it would be added to a special book they each carried, one that provided a record certifying each artisan’s skills and experiences specific to their craft. Then they’d move on to a new project, possibly in a different country altogether.

Based on this description, it sounded very much like a European version of AmeriCorps – a youth program in the States that provides practical job skills to young people, who in return complete projects that benefit the general public.  It’s an awesome concept.

This wooden cabin with a thatched roof is an example of a traditional Romanian building for the region. | Click to Purchase on Fine Art America

Unfortunately, some of the core values of communal living – solitude, a connection with nature, and harmonious peace – didn’t seem to extend to this group, at least not during our overnighter. Well after 2 am when we were hoping the “concert” would start dying down, it instead picked up volume. Handfuls of sleeping bag stuffed over our ears did nothing to muffle the piercing screams and angry throbbing of heavy metal music that blasted the field until sunrise. Desperate for a reprieve, I finally snatched up my sleeping bag and kicked back the front seat of the VW to catch a few fitful hours of sleep.  Now I remember the evening and all its peculiarities with bemusement, but that night, I was ready to mow down a couple of speakers with the car!

Waking the next morning to the most beautiful fall day ever, all was forgiven. Considering that we had crashed their party, we had no right to complain. Plus, the “field folk” were about to completely redeem themselves by sharing their homemade shower. No longer able to stand my own grime, I rooted around for a change of fresh clothes and headed for the communal, semi-private outdoor shower our friendly hosts pointed out in the field.

They had built a two-stall shower with hoses ingeniously pieced together, a nicely solid plank floor with walls on three sides, and shower curtains that drew closed most of the way. It was fantastic. Even without heated water in the early morning chill, a few goosebumps were a small price to pay for the most deliriously fantastic shower with open-air views of the forest, so desperate was I to feel clean again.

By 10 am, the temperature was rising so steadily I knew it was going to be another scorcher.  My hair was still damp from the shower, but it was already too warm to leave the sanctuary of shade. Returning to the car, it was clear where everyone had gone, so I followed a path to the river to join them.

Message to the Cartisoara River in Romania
It’s best to never wash your car windows just in case you need to leave someone an important message.

Despite the occasional piece of rubbish, the Cartisoara River was a nice surprise, refreshingly cool swirling around bare feet.  A wide, slow-moving river (at least in August) with pretty river rocks, it’s similar to the St. Maries River in North Idaho where I swam every summer as a kid.

Further upstream, several of the “field folk” were enjoying a morning dip in waist-deep water dammed by large rocks.

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While the four of us shared a mixed breakfast of cheese and salami, buckwheat and fresh cherries, a little boy on a bicycle peddled toward us along the shore.  As he struggled to keep his too-large bike upright in the deep rocks, I cringed each time he slowed to a crawl before forging ahead through a deep bend in the creek.  It was clear from his battle-scarred knees that sometimes he won, and sometimes the rocks won.  Doubling back for another pass, he flashed a somewhat shy but cheeky grin, showing off for our benefit before drunkenly tottering off up the creek.

With the car loaded up, the four of us said goodbye to Noroc the kitten where he was safely asleep on a tree branch. Larisa and I both wanted to take him back to Switzerland with us, and even though we knew it was a bad idea, I feel sad to think about what kind of life he’ll have as a stray.  Perhaps he’ll be happier, utterly free to roam the grassy fields, climb trees, and hunt for live prey the way his big brothers still do in the wild.

Noroc the kitten asleep in a tree in Cartisoara, Romania
Happily dozing in a tree, Noroc the kitten is being fed and cared for by the “field folk” while they’re in Cartisoara working on their building project.

We pulled out of the campground to a very different sight than the one from when we arrived.  The party scene – bonfire, thumping music, free spirits madly gyrating in the firelight – had been replaced by an earnest group of dedicated volunteers quietly going about their work.  The only sound in the windless fields was the rhythmic pounding of a hammer.  One of the field folk, a blacksmith, was stripped to the waist wearing only a leather apron, laboring over a small flame and a glowing shard of metal in the afternoon sun.

Lunch with Locals

Glancing up at the distant mountains which would end up being our destination for the evening, we first drove across town to Larisa’s relatives’ house, entering to what felt like a celebrity’s welcome.  Her aunt, cousins, and in-laws ushered us in like family, insisting we have lunch with them before continuing our travels.

While lunch was in the works, a bottle of Romanian liquor appeared before us with several shot glasses.  Though I’m not accustomed to doing shots quite so early in the day, I couldn’t pass up a taste.

We wouldn’t want to be rude, would we?!

Fermented and/or distilled by Larisa’s in-laws,  I’m not sure if it was țuică, palincă, or something entirely different, but I definitely felt like I could breathe fire.

Superb hosts, they immediately followed it up with cups of aromatic, black coffee.  We’d missed our typical morning coffee, and I know that Travis in particular was jonesin’.  It was like they read our minds.

Cup of coffee in porcelain teacup in Cartisoara, Romania
Always thoughtful, Larisa passes across this particular cup of coffee for me because of the good-luck foam on the surface.

In the shake of a lamb’s tail, a feast appeared before us.  Not only was it our first Romanian food, but it was our first home-cooked Romanian meal, the best kind.

We savored soup with Cream of Wheat dumplings and sarmale, minced meat filling typically wrapped in some type of leaf, such as grape, or filo dough.  Bread and fresh sour-cream garnish rounded out the meal.

It was delicious!

Traditional home-cooking meal in Cartisoara, Romania
We dine on homemade dumpling soup, sarmale, and fresh bread for lunch.

So stuffed I could barely walk, I was glad when one of Larisa’s in-laws beckoned for us to follow him on a tour of the property.

Eeking past a guard dog with a ferocious bark, we crossed a small pasture to another long strip of land, this one harboring a sizable vegetable garden.  Veggies in bright shades of green and red hung ripe in the sun; cucumbers, giant tomatoes, and row after row of peppers.  From their year, I admired the house next door, with its red brick and creeping vines.

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We admired the garden while one of the kids kicked around a soccer ball, barefoot and shirtless.  I found myself wondering if the little guy would reflect back on his childhood one day and appreciate growing up in a rural area, as Travis and I do, or wish he’d grown up in a city, like my older sister does.

A local inspects his garden in Cartisoara, Romania
Tomatoes, peppers, and all manner of veggies hang ripe in the garden.

Walking beneath the surrounding trees, he pointed out various types of fruit, plucking off several ripe plums for us to sample.

Gathering up a long scythe, he demonstrated how to sharpen it with a handheld stone, indicating that this was his primary tool for cutting the neatly shorn grass.  His love for and connection with the land were clearly evident.

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Opening another gate, we startled several sheep, then helped herd them back into their pasture where they eyed us with curiosity.  As if not to be outdone on the cuteness scale, a handful of fuzzy bunnies begged us to stop and say hello.

Fuzzy bunnies at a home in Cartisoara, Romania
How cute are these fuzzy little bunnies?!

As the afternoon rolled on, we visited a bit longer with Larisa’s family before gathering up our things to go.  They were kind enough to indulge me in a single group photo before we thanked them one last time and pulled out of Cartisoara.

Family members of our friends in Cartisoara, Romania
Romi and Larisa pose with her family in the courtyard of their house in Cartisoara.

With no plans yet for where we would sleep that night, we drove due south toward the solid wall of mountains in the distance.  Ahead lay Moldoveanu, the tallest peak in Romania, and somewhere just beneath it, the high-altitude Bâlea Lake.

Our route up into the clouds would be the famous Transfăgărășan Highway, arguably Romania’s most famous road.  Filled with hairpin curves, sheer drop-offs, and cascading waterfalls, we were in for an unforgettable evening.

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Map of Romania Road Trip 1

The yellow pins mark our travel for day three; the blue line roughly follows the first half of our entire 11-day travel path and attractions we visited.

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