When I was travelling 20 years ago, I met another backpacker who had been chased by wolves in the Carpathian Mountains, confirming every preconceived notion I had about this region of the world. Transylvania, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nicolae Ceaușescu, Communism and gymnasts were the only other things I associated with Romania. I have to admit, in the intervening years I didn’t learn much more.
I don’t know why this didn’t occur to us earlier, but I had the (brilliant) idea to ask Leroy’s sisters to meet up with us today. Two of his sisters were too nervous to travel – virtually or otherwise – but his middle sister Solange and her four kids (Alexandre, Océane, Sisi and Clément) were game. Ever since Solange’s husband left a few years ago, travel would be just about the last thing they could afford to do normally.
We met them just before opening time at the entrance to Salina Turda – an underground theme park inside one of the oldest salt mines in the world and home to the Romanian music festival, Transylvania Calling. A Eurovision testing ground, perhaps? The salt mine, which dates as far back as the 17th century, was used for everything from cheese storage to a bomb shelter in WWII after excavations stopped in 1932. As you can see, it’s pretty amazing.