|Rain falls on the Limmat, Zurich|
Marin Sorescu says in his poem The Traveller that because he’s stuffed his suitcases ‘full of useless things’ he didn’t have room for ‘the only /Useful object: an umbrella.’
I’d almost brought an umbrella with me but at the last moment, left it behind. Such an encumbrance! And besides – I was going south…
As soon as I got to Zurich, it started to rain. Bahnhofstrasse is all lovely trams and grand expensive shops. Except in the old town, the pedestrian zone, with its drooping red flags with white crosses, and shiny cobblestones.
Augustinergasse, small shops and large buildings with restaurants on the ground floor. Between showers, I clambered up to the Lindenplatz with its vista over the Limmat, and rooftops.
On the coach heading south
Over the border into Austria the sun comes out. So do the mountains, the sharp ones, the steel-tipped ones, the ones wreathed with mist like a crown of jewels. The ones with bare patches like old scar tissue and the ones covered with the green fur of their forests but have pointed peaks that are white with snow. These are always the distant ones. They hide their very topmost secrets in low-travelling cloud. One looks as if there’s a whole castle up there, hidden by cloud curtains. As if the visible part which everyone thinks is the mountain is just a flight of steps leading up – to that part that’s obscured from view. The mountain spirits would be astonished to know that we think that the ladder is the real thing – that the scaffolding is the building, is the work of art.
It was almost dark at the German border, when they took our passports away to look at them. My seat companion says they always check passports here (he does this journey frequently) sometimes they search all luggage, this is a route for smuggling (I presume drugs) and they check the young people because, he says, they (the border control) are not stupid. They don’t look it either. They look as if they would defend you against anything – a bit like the Austrian mountains we have left behind. Returning the passports, they call out people’s names. As usual, on coaches in central and southern Europe, I am the only Brit.
Early morning, somewhere in Hungary
So – you begin to get a taste for it, this travelling life. For the pale grey clumps and dots and punctuation marks of clouds, bushes of marsh grasses on the edges of the pale blue of sky. Early morning is always where the sky is special, newly-woken, threads of gold low down near the horizon, and my seat companion says we are close to Romania and the road runs between the mountains – only it’s not a continuous motorway, because of corruption. I imagine stepping-stones of road, through valleys, between protruding mountains, and the way we have to go – now slim and stretched, now thick and fat, in the places where corruption could not reach.
The Hungarian plain is so flat you can see every tree for miles and miles and every pimple on the land, each flicker of a rabbit's whiskers, each shift of the hare from its haunches to its back legs as it prepares to lope across the field.
You can see on and on until the light fizzles everything out into golden, which must be the entrance to God's fireplace.
Romania. Arad. Bucharest 425 kilometres says the sign.
Roadside houses all have roses, red, yellow, white. In their grounds they have vegetables or fruit trees or both. The gardens are not fiercely tended and laid out. Sometimes the ground is simply bare with some long grass more like a diminutive farmyard than garden. Some vines as well, vegetable patch, vine patch or trellis or both. Fruit and shade.
Hills and hills and all covered with trees, all kinds of trees, acacia, elm, poplar, oak and some olives too. Grainfields some golden already, some maize corn. Fallow land marshy by rivers, bamboo. Hay stooks around a pole.
Settle into the evening, after the whole long day with distant hills always green and the flat plains so flat and red roofs so few and scattered and even the small towns deserted looking. Now the hills have crept closer, thickly forested, mainly pines but others as well and they are turning into mountains. And few buildings, and look there's a river curving beside the road. Such fertility and luxury. The tree-covered mountains go on and on. Now the road climbs up, curving right and right, now left, in hairpin bends, and everything on either side is thick with green. So huge, tree-swept and so unpeopled a country.
Braşov, Southern Carpathians or Transylvanian Alps.
Now there are big buildings many of them old with long sloping roofs, an alpine look, a high resort in the mountains and there's a train running alongside. My eyes latch onto it, clunky, square and appealing, its carriages of pale blue and pinkish brown all washed out and worn-looking.
Something about this land that I feel should uplift, instead feels so big – mountains on both sides – with trails of thin cloud running down the green pine branches like down wrenched from the heart of the sky. These are not like the Swiss or Austrian mountains, their character feels very different. So high, I almost feel vertigo. A sense of relief as we descend back into the plain on the other side of the mountains and head for Bucharest.
View of the Piatra Craiului mountains from Zărneşti, Romania, in winter.
Photo credit: Agent-garak https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zarnesti.JPG