Category Archives: Nature

A new home

It’s now just over a week since we moved to the village of Micești, south of Cluj-Napoca. It’s a little more remote than where we were before, with only one road going into it. As a result, it’s a very peaceful village, that nestles in a valley between wooded hills.

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According to Wikipedia, the village was first documented in 1297, when it appears in the records of the local monastery. Its biggest claim to fame appears to be the salt well, which was long used for food preservation. In fact, until WW2, people in the surrounding villages were charged a fee for drawing water from it!

Much more recently, the village became the birthplace of the United Methodist Church of Romania and there is still a small congregation that worships here. Hence one of the reasons we have chosen to live here.

Meanwhile, the open meadows and gardens surrounded by forest make it a haven for insects of all kinds. As I was walking through the village the other day, I came upon a cloud of blue butterflies mud-puddling on the side of the road. Among them, were some of these:

This is the scarce fritillary (Latin: Euphydryas maturna; Romanian: Marmoratul frasinului). It is a butterfly of open woodland and hence is becoming increasingly rare in Western and Central Europe.

Micești also has plenty of birds, including storks, a relentless cuckoo and a pair of song thrushes (Latin: Turdus philomelos; Romanian: Sturz cântător) nesting just a few metres from our back door:

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There are at least three young birds, one of which can just be seen in the above picture.

The house hasn’t been lived in for a while, so I think our presence has caught them a little by surprise! However, it was lovely to hear the male singing morning and evening when we first arrived and now both birds are being kept busy raising their new family… as are we with things that need doing on the house!

 

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Romanian A-Z: P: Into the woods (Part 1)

The Romanian word for forest is pădure (plural păduri). This is an important word to know if you like hazelnuts (alune de pădure) or forest fruits (fructe de pădure) or you plan to spend any time exploring Transylvania, 37% of which is covered by forest.

The word pădure is derived from the Latin paludes (vulgar padule), meaning swamp or marsh. How this came to be attached to woodland instead is anyone’s guess, but it certainly suggests a place that is wild and forbidding. As such, it differs from the word forest, which derives from the Latin forestra, used to denote managed woodland. Pădurea is also intimately tied to Romanian folklore; hardly surprising when the forests are inhabited by wolves and bears and both shepherds and sheep have been known to go missing. Venturing into such păduri alone will always be seen as a dangerous undertaking, as in all the best fairytales, with anyone choosing to live there alone being regarded as somewhat strange…

As if to emphasise the point further, the Romanian word for wild, sălbatic, comes from another Latin word sylvaticus, meaning ‘of the woods’. The word ‘savage’ has the same root, as does Transylvania (or Transilvania), which means ‘beyond the woods’. Presumably, ‘beyond the woods’ was a good place to be, if they were full of savagery; something easily forgotten in what’s left of our tame English woods. Not so much here. Some of you may remember this from last summer:

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Into the woods,
Who knows what may
Be lurking on the journey?

(Stephen Sondheim)

Meanwhile, autumn and winter have come and gone and spring has now come to Transylvania, transforming the wooded landscape from dull brown and white to vivid greens. Three weeks ago, on 4th April, the forests looked like this:

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Still a dull brown, although the pastures were turning green and a few of the bushes, such as hawthorn and elder were beginning to sprout:

By 9th April, a little colour was starting to appear, mostly provided by hornbeam catkins:

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By 14th April, the blackthorn was in full bloom, though most of the larger trees were still bare:

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Blackthorn (prunus spinosa) is closely related to plum (Latin: prunus domestica; Romanian: prun), which was also in full bloom:

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The plum tree is thought to have originated in Eastern Europe and it certainly does well here. So, whilst it might not qualify for the wild woods mentioned above, it’s a very popular tree in orchards, the plums often being used to make ţuicăor plum brandy. The blossom is also very popular with the bees, as you can see. There were dozens of honey bees on this tree, as well as a few bumble bees. The latter seemed to prefer the top of the tree, so escaped being photographed!

By 17th April, the plum blossom was already beginning to fade, to be replaced by pear (Romanian: păr – tree; pară – fruit). However, the following photo, taken on 17th April, will give you some idea of just how ubiquitous fruit trees (pomi fructiferi) are in the villages:

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Just a week later, even the pear blossom was all but finished, but another tree native to Romania was starting to bloom – the lilac (liliac):

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And on the Tuesday of this week, just three weeks after the first pictures, the forest was looking like this:

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It’s amazing to think that, just over a month ago, it was all covered in snow and there was not a spike of green to be seen. It seems primăvară comes quickly to the păduri!

More about the forests, the trees and the battles for their conservation in the next post.

Romanian A-Z: P – and the Crișul Repede Gorge

The Crișul Repede is a river that runs through the Cluj and Bihor counties of Romania, cutting through the Apuseni mountains to flow down to Oradea and into Hungary. As it does so, it cuts through a limestone gorge, which, with the weather being sunny and warm this week, we thought might be worth exploring.

Having lived not far from Cheddar, in Somerset, we are familiar with at least one limestone gorge and we found this one to be equally impressive. With walls 100-150m high surrounding the river and a little-used railway, it was definitely worth a visit, even without the summer or autumn colours to set it off:

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Of course, the first thing you notice about a gorge is the rock, or piatră. Indeed, if, like me, you travel with a geologist, rocks are the one thing you are not going to miss on any expedition! In this case, we are talking about limestone, but our previous explorations have already shown that the geology of the Apuseni is complex, with volcanic, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks all playing their part. Limestone is made of calcite – i.e. calcium carbonate – which itself comes in many forms. Here, for example, is some calcite from above Lacul Drăgan (which we also visited):

It’s quite crumbly, but if you look closely, you will see that the last specimen resembles marble, which is what limestone turns into when it is squished. Pure calcite/marble is white, so the different colours come from accompanying minerals.

Meanwhile, rivers need to be crossed, which requires un pod:

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The one above is for pedestrians only, but we also came across this one:

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Looks like it ought to lead somewhere significant, doesn’t it? That would be here then:

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The beginning of the path along the gorge and a nice enough place for a picnic, but perhaps not quite what such a bridge might lead one to expect! I can only think that, like so many other things in Romania, the bridge was part of a plan that never fully materialised? Another, more notorious, example of this kind of thing is the Autostradă Transilvania, where we have the opposite problem; a beautiful new road, part of which remains unused for want of a bridge!

Both the above bridges lead (eventually) to one of a number of caves, or or peștere:

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Limestone is, of course, famous for its caverns full of stalactites and stalagmites and the Crișul Repede Gorge is no exception. The one above is the Peștera Unguru Mare. We weren’t able to go in because it’s only open at weekends at this time of year, but Duncan was able to visit the Peștera Vadu Crișului at the other end of the gorge. The path to reach this wasn’t accessible to my scooter, so I spent my time in the woods instead, enjoying the signs of new life:

Romanian A-Z: O – and the first signs of spring

The letter O brings me to another of my favourite Romanian words:

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O oaie – a sheep. Or, in this case, trei oi – three sheep.

I like this word because, being made up only of vowels, it’s not the sort of word you find much in English. Certainly not for something as everyday as a sheep. ‘Oh-aye-eh’. It’s a word that would be very useful in Scrabble, I think 😉

This photo was taken a few weeks ago, at the end of February. Friends of ours who keep sheep have said that they lost a few lambs in March to the Beast from the East, but now, at last, it’s looking as if spring is on the way, so the sheep are out on the hills again.

Saturday was a particularly warm day, with temperatures reaching 21°C. Here’s what I found when I went for a wander up the hill:

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Wild violets (violete). No, they don’t begin with O and neither do the celandines:

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But I was excited about them, so I decided to share them anyway! It’s not really cheating because my next letter will be P for primavara (meaning the spring). And, as I have lots to talk about for the letter P, I decided not to bore you with words like oribil, onest and optsprezece (eighteen), but to jump straight in.

Literally, primavara means ‘first summer’. I didn’t see any primroses Saturday afternoon, but they get their name from the same Latin root. This is because they are often the first flowers to appear in the spring. Certainly, they were the first I saw this year, but I didn’t have a camera with me at the time, so here are some English ones from 2nd April 2010:

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What I did see up on the hill on Saturday were some of their close relatives:

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In Romanian: Ciuboţica cucului.

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What a lovely surprise!

Romanian A-Z: Martie

Towards the end of February, Duncan came home from the supermarket with a bottle of chefir around which was tied a red and white cord:

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‘Why the red cord?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know,’ he replied, ‘but they were all like it.’

A few days later, all was revealed. Suddenly my Facebook feed was alive with red and white cords and good wishes. In Romania, 1st March is ‘Mărțișor‘. The name is the diminutive form of marț, the old name for martie or March and literally means ‘little March’. It’s a celebration that marks – or looks forward to – the beginning of spring.

Traditionally, people in country villages would exchange these cords, tying them to their clothing, their gate or their barn to protect against evil spirits and to invoke nature’s regenerative power. It was believed that anyone who wore such a cord would be given health and strength in the coming year. The cord would be worn until the end of March or until the first tree buds began to open and then would be tied to a fruit tree to ensure a good harvest.

Nowadays, particularly in urban areas, the mărțișor is seen more as symbol of love, friendship and respect and is exchanged as such, along with messages such as ‘un mărțișor fericit și o primăvară frumoasă‘ (Happy mărțișor and a beautiful spring). Unlike St David’s day, it’s also associated more with snowdrops than with daffodils!

The tradition is believed to go back to ancient times and similar traditions are also found in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Albania and Moldova. Some argue it has Roman origins, some that it has Thracian or Dacian origins. Wherever it comes from, it clearly reflects the unpredictability of the March weather and the longing for spring. In essence, it’s not unlike the ancient British Imbolc/Brigid’s day festival of 2nd February that also celebrates the coming of spring and involves the blessing of home and hearth.

This year, it corresponded with the coldest night of the winter (at -16 C), kindly brought to us by the Beast from the East. It was followed by International Women’s Day on 8th March, when the shops were full of flowers and other gifts of the sort I would normally associate with Mothering Sunday. (Mother’s Day doesn’t come until May 6th). Then some rather warmer days, when a few brave primroses began to open… only for the Beast to come creeping back to decorate the trees ready for the Equinox:

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There is a saying in Romania when the weather has been mild and suddenly turns cold: ‘Iarna n-a mâncat-o lupul’ – the wolf hasn’t eaten the winter. Well, I can’t help feeling it’s about time he did. True, he seemed to have a jolly good go in December and January, but perhaps that’s the problem? He was full and didn’t fancy dessert?

Whatever, I can’t help feeling that some more seasonable temperatures would be nice. It’s not so much that I don’t like snow. I love the stuff! But there is a time and a season for everything. Right now, it’s the colours I miss. Blue sky. Green grass. Bright spring flowers…

So, Mr Wolf, if you’re not going to eat the winter yourself, I’d appreciate it if you’d wake up Mr Bear and see if you can get him to send the Beast packing!

 

Romanian A-Z: M and a taste of grandeur

Today we woke up to a light sprinkling of snow – a prelude to the icy Siberian blast that is about to overtake Europe – so we decided a visit to the mountains was in order. This was convenient because, while munte (plural munți) is perhaps not the most exciting of Romanian words, it does begin with M!

Of course, mountains have featured before on this blog, but this is the first time we have been up to the local ski resort, which, at a height of 1600m, is the highest we’ve been. On the way up, we found ourselves shrouded in cloud, but the top was clear and most of the mist had rolled away by the time we came back down. It really was a perfect day for it:

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The vastness of the snowy landscape, the deep valleys of the Apuseni and the panoramic views from ‘the top of the world’ (or that bit of it!) lead naturally to my next word, mare. At its simplest, it means ‘big’, but it can also be used in place of ‘grand’ or to describe an older child or a higher temperature or…

The sea! That is, as a noun, rather than an adjective, that’s precisely what it means!

Now, it so happens that the only sea that borders Romania is the Black Sea, to which I have never been. So I can’t show you a picture of that without cheating, so, instead, here is a picture taken from the SW coast of England:

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A picture chosen because that’s the great big Atlantic Ocean out there. (Sorry, Romania, you may have higher mountains, but we get to win this one!) And this is definitely not cheating because, of course, it’s a photo taken in Marea Britanie!

Meanwhile, mare comes with several related words, such as măreț (magnificent, mighty, lofty), măreție (grandeur), mărime (size), the verb mări (to enlarge), not to be confused with mări (seas), măr (apple) and mere (apples).

Magnificence. Grandeur. These are among the characteristics I love about both mountains and sea. Others include wildness, beauty, majesty, power (in the case of the sea) and the feeling of size and space. Being in the presence of such beauty and grandeur feeds my soul. It causes me to pause, to breathe, to wonder. Which is why I love living in a village in Romania! And it’s also why the sea is among the things I miss most!

So here’s just a few more pictures, this time from the Welsh coast – and with them the words that being there inspired:

Be still!
Look!
Listen!

Feel the heartbeat of the universe:

In the breath-taking grandeur of earth and sky,
In the awesome power of wind and wave,
In the deep darkness of a starless night
In the bright splendour of a new day

Be still!
Look!
Listen!

Feel the heartbeat of the universe:

In the still silence of an ancient church
In the resounding song of a Cathedral choir
In the buzz and murmur of a meal that’s shared
In the piercing cry of a new born child

Be still!
Look!
Listen!

Feel the heartbeat of the universe:

In the smile that lights
In the tear that falls
In the anger that disturbs
In the passion that ignites
In the grace that liberates
In the love that enfolds

Be still!
Feel the heartbeat of the universe
Deep in your soul

Awaken to its movement
Dance to its rhythm
Rejoice in its melody
Live to the beat of God’s heart.

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Romanian A-Z: N – and the coming of winter

Yes I know I hadn’t quite got to N yet. However, this morning we woke up to the view above. So I decided I would jump a couple of letters and talk about it.

Ninge – it’s snowing.

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Not that it’s easy to tell from those pictures, but it is. And since sharing snow pictures is a thing in England, it seemed like time to join in 😉

Besides which, I like snow. Whether I’ll still be saying that in February remains to be seen, but there is something about the way that it blankets the world that appeals to me. The silence. The stillness. The crispness of the air.

 

It certainly makes a nice change from ‘no sun, no moon…’ noiembrie:

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One of the early chapters in Arthur Ransome’s ‘Winter Holiday’ ends with the words, ‘Softly and silently, the first snow (flakes?) began to fall.’ It’s one of the few lines from a book that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it. To me, it is pregnant with possibility. The morning will bring a whole new world…

Fulgi de nea – snow flakes
Liniște – silence (which I wrote more about here)

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The picture above is of the walnut tree in the garden next door. I’m growing quite fond of this tree. It looked particularly grand in autumn when its leaves turned. But it also brings me to my final word:

Nuci – walnuts (pronouced ‘nootch’; singular nuc)

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There are a lot of walnut trees in Romania and it seems they like it here because some even grow wild. The result?

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Winter stores 🙂 We’re going to need something to keep us warm!