My girlfriend comes from the Eastern part of Bulgaria about an hour's drive from the Black Sea. Therefore, by a quirk of geography, her home is actually far closer to the Romanian capital of Bucharest than its Bulgarian counterpart Sofia. So, when we decided to pay a visit to her family, we flew to Bucharest. Her father and uncle were kind enough to agree to collect us and drive us south. If I am honest, when we booked the trip, the journey between the two countries was as alluring to me as the attractions that Bulgaria had to offer (If I am honest, I was not 100% sure what those attractions would amount to). It would be a chance to see Eastern Europe up close.
It was a bright Saturday afternoon when we took the road that leads from Bucharest to the border. We had landed and spent the day in the capital having lunch, visiting Nocolai Ceaucescu's ill-fated presidential palace and seeing a few historic buildings. So, we left the centre and headed due south. The first thing that I noticed here was the rather rapid and dramatic change that takes place once you move a kilometer away from the palace and embassies in the centre of the city. Tree-lined boulevards give way to dusty and crumbling streets that were lined by rather dilapidated looking apartment blocks. I was truly amazed how quickly the façade of splendour disappeared. As the roads grew increasingly bumpy, I mused that this said a lot about the Communist era and how out of touch the leaders must have been with everyday people.
For the first stages of our journey, the road was shadowed by the rather ramshackle looking tramway. This was another Communist era relic. And, even in the car with the wind blowing through the windows we could hear it grinding and clanking its way along the roads. It looked beautifully antiquated. Each of the stations was little more than a concrete platform with a rusting shelter bolted onto it. There were no ticket machines - we could see conductors on the trams taking fares - there were no digital screens saying when the next tram would arrive; there wasn't even a map. It all looked very bleak. Along the sides of the road, things were as ramshackle as the tram. As we moved out of the city, the apartment blocks gave way to cottages and shacks - there were even horses and carts trotting along.
At this point, I was already thinking about what I would say in my journals about Romania. I had it all drafted out in my head. I would talk about how quickly we went from the wide boulevards of the city to the 'rustic' countryside. Then, something happened to completely mess with the lovely little narrative I had all planned. The cottages and shacks did not disappear, but they began to be punctuated by industry - farming technology seemed to be a big favourite - and the roads began to widen and appear more modern. A lot of the plants and showrooms evoked a modernity that was even missing from the center of Bucharest. This completely took me aback. I was expecting no such transformation. It also left me a little confused. It wasn't until I made the return journey a week later that I figured out that the industrialization had taken place so far away from Bucharest because of the area's proximity to the Danube and the Bulgarian border ensuring trade possibilities and easier transportation.
The changes in the scenery around Romania were significant, albeit not earth-shattering. I certainly, though, found it very interesting to track the way that the country changed as the landscape slipped by our window.