Reviewed by Will Gourlay
'Enchanting' isn’t a word usually associated with Romania. Think 'Romania' and most people will conjure images of Communist-era architecture in Bucharest or hair-raising tales of Dracula. However, in Along the Enchanted Way, William Blacker's account of years spent living in Romania paints an altogether different – and unexpected – picture of this little-known country.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Blacker ventured through Eastern Europe, eventually roaming to Romania at the time of the overthrow of Ceausescu. Blacker was intrigued by all he discovered in this 'countryside awash with colour and brimming with cheerful people' completely at odds with the drab world of Communist conformity that he'd expected.
After that initial encounter, Blacker returned several times, passing through Transylvania, visiting villages where the Saxon community maintained traditions dating back to the 12th century. But the place where he settled was further north, in the forested Maramures region, cut off from the outside world by a ring of mountains. Here he discovered a peasant way of life that had endured for centuries.
Blacker was no fly-by-night travel writer popping in to record his impressions and then moving on. He found accommodation with a local couple, Mihai and Maria, who immediately offered him a cup of horinca (home-brewed apple brandy) and told him he could stay as long as he liked. And stay he did, for several years living the life of a peasant farmer, learning to cut hay with a scythe, watching the seasons pass, harvests come and go, and observing the trials and tribulations of village life.
This book, in fact, is as much an account of the Romanian way of life as it is a travelogue. Blacker describes the rituals of village courtship (although admitting he never quite learned all the subtleties), the joys and aching muscles of physical toil, the colour and buzz of local markets and the rites and superstitions of local spiritual life which revealed a potent overlay of pagan tradition on top of Orthodox practice. It’s an idyllic picture that he paints, but it is not entirely rosy-eyed: winters at 30 below zero don’t sound like much fun!
Blacker also spent several years living amongst the Roma of a small village in Transylvania. Despite being warned against them by conservative locals he was drawn to their carefree ways, their lively music and their dark-eyed allure. Here, life was less idyllic. There was tension between the Roma and others, where prejudices and misperceptions could lead to confrontation and moments of violence. Happily, Blacker was able to defend his friends from injustice, while also experiencing the footloose, spontaneous joy of Roma life.
All in all, this is an important book. It reveals a great depth of experience and understanding of a remote corner of Europe, and it records with sensitivity and engaging prose an ages-old way of life that is likely to be changed irrevocably with the arrival of modern ways and technologies. Enchanting indeed!
Will Gourlay has been an editor and writer for Lonely Planet for a decade, and a regular traveller to southeastern Europe for longer.