Travel; Railways: A whistle-stop tour of the past

A train journey through the Romanian countryside offers cultural and historical insights galore.
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The Independent Culture
A single shrill whistle, a plume of thick white smoke, and a sudden shower of black smut and bright fiery sparks, announces that it is time for the 7am train from Viseu De Sus to Coman to depart. The old steam engine has taken Romanian loggers up the Vaser Valley to their camps close to the Ukrainian border for decades. Nowadays, they are joined by tourists and walkers wanting to explore the beautiful Rodna Mountains in the Maramures district of northern Romania.

My day had started an hour earlier, sipping a cup of thick black coffee in the Viseu De Sus equivalent of a transport cafe. Local people had told me that it was essential to be early for the train departure, and that the train is always late.

I stumbled my way through the near-darkness of the railway yard, to bag myself a seat for the journey. Apart from the train engine, there were three other carriages; all were open-sided, the last carriage being open-roofed too - this was clearly third class.

The middle carriage was regarded as being the premier accommodation, enjoying the luxury of roofed protection against the elements, while being far enough away from the engine not to be constantly engulfed in acrid smoke.

It was filling up quickly, too, and I had to be swift to secure a place on one of the hard wooden benches. One local had spread out an impromptu breakfast of bread, cheese, schnitzel and salami across the width of several seats, putting a reserve on them as effectively as a sunseeker's towel on a sunbed. Another man, wearing a thick fur waistcoat, which engulfed him so completely as to make him barely indistinguishable from the pelt's previous owner, was sweatily involved in loading vastsacks of tools onto the floor at the rear of the compartment.

Seven o'clock came and went and apart from a couple of false starts, where the engine shunted several yards back and forth along the track only to grind to a steely halt once again, the big black steam monster sat motionless and impassive. The word had gone out that we were waiting on the driver. British Rail revisited? The atmosphere was not that of grumbling rush-hour commuters, though: three elderly forestry officials in green felt hats and grandad-style cardigans drew heavily on their cigarettes; laughing, and swapping anecdotes. Younger lumberjacks in woolly jerkins and ugly high boots stomped their feet and hugged themselves against the still chill morning.

My thoughts turned to the mountains, and of a day to come to be spent among the pine forests and flower meadows overlooking the Ukraine to the north, and the fairy-tale, white-steepled churches around Borsa to the south.

The arrival of the driver is announced by a puffing and a wheezing: a big man in a grubby string-vest, he casually tosses his still-burning cigarette into the seeming tinderbox of logs, cut, bound and awaiting transportation, and without more ado we are off. Several workers are caught out by the sudden departure and have to run to catch up with the fast disappearing third-class compartment. They needn't have worried. A hundred yards along the line and we halt again, this time for the driver to disappear into a small house for his morning coffee and what looks like a doughnut. No one complains.

The journey is soon resumed and before long small mountain villages, fast-flowing streams and dense bands of trees are being passed at the train's leisurely pace of 10 miles an hour, as it makes its ascent ever higher. These thick forests are home to deer, bears, wolves, and are one of the last places on the continent to support a small population of the European lynx. Sightings of any of these animals are a privilege, however, and it came as no surprise not to see anything wilder than a squirrel all day.

More common are animals of domestication. Horses tethered to wooden carts, piled high with straw; a gaggle of geese complaining noisily from their pen; small piglets, ducks and chickens running free along a village street. The train passed smocked workers in a field; row upon row of drying hayricks, and old women, dressed in black aprons and thick Nora Batty stockings, who would momentarily pause from their washing to stand and wave.

A grinding of gears and a shuddering stop signalled arrival. Passengers and luggage were swiftly offloaded and a wisp of smoke was the last I saw of the fast-retreating engine. I may have travelled for a mere 45 minutes, a distance no more miles than I could count on one hand, but as a time machine, I couldn't have hoped for a more efficient Tardis. I'd begun the day in the Age of Steam, to journey through a rural Romania little changed since medieval times, and end on a mountainside unaltered in aeons.

Brief details of trains in Romania are included in the Thomas Cook European Timetable. Romanian Tourist Office, 83a Marylebone High Street, London W1 (0171-224 3692)