We have been hosting guests on cycling and walking holidays in Romania, and particularly Transylvania, for years now. And we have read plenty about the place too, so we feel well placed to advise on some of the best books that will prepare you for your time exploring this fascinating land we’ve come to love so much.
While Romania has a notable and rich literary tradition stretching back centuries, we’ve chosen for a list that we feel provides the opportunity to learn about the country before, during and after communism. It’s also a list that includes Romanian, Hungarian and foreign authors. If you would like to buy any on the list, I recommend my favourite bookshop, Heywood Hill in London’s West End.
‘ALONG THE ENCHANTED WAY’ BY WILLIAM BLACKER
If you are going to read one book about Romania before, during or after your time with us in Romania, I recommend Along the Enchanted Way. I read it in a single sitting, on my way by train from William’s house in Transylvania – having met him for the first time – to Budapest.
When William first crossed the snow-bound passes of northern Romania in 1990, he stumbled upon an almost medieval world. For many years he lived side by side with the country people, a life ruled by the slow rhythm of the seasons, far away from the frantic rush of the modern world. In Spring, as the pear trees blossomed, he ploughed with horses; in Summer he scythed the hay meadows; and, in the freezing winters, he gathered firewood from the forest by sleigh. From sheepfolds harried by wolves, to courting expeditions in the snow, he experiences the traditional way of life to the full, and became accepted into a community who treated him as one of their own.
William was also intrigued by the Gypsies, the dark, foot-loose strangers of spell-binding allure, who he saw passing through the village. Locals warned him to stay clear but he fell in love and there followed a bitter struggle.
Much of the book takes place in the villages you will be visiting and the story makes for a fascinating insight, particularly as you pedal from one village to the next.
Over the years, William has become a good friend of The Slow Cyclist and we’re delighted that donations from our guests have helped fund building conservation projects he has been involved with through his charitable organisation, ARTTA.
‘EMBERS’ BY SANDOR MARAI
One of our guests described this classic as a ‘beautifully evocative novel capturing the fin-de-Siecle mood in the Carpathians.’ I’ve sine read it, and couldn’t agree more. Published in 1942, the Hungarian author – one of that country’s greatest – captures the melancholy decadence of a fading empire in elegant, philosophical prose.
‘DRACULA’ BY BRAM STOKER
Transylvania and the legend of Dracula go hand in hand. Bram Stoker’s eponymous book is, of course, responsible. If you travel with us to Romania you will ore than likely visit the town in which Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Dracula, was allegedly born; so there will never be a better time to re-read it.
‘THE TRANSYLVANIAN TRILOGY’ BY MIKLOS BANFFY
Banffy was a Hungarian nobleman, politician and novelist whose ancestral home was in Cluj Napoca, in modern Romania. This fictional work – a series of three books that began publication in 1934 – is an unrivalled study of the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The books were first translated into English in 1999 and although far from swashbuckling, they are extraordinary stories of love, sex and the struggle for power. They are the Transylvanian War and Peace and, in my view, some of the finest books ever written.
‘BETWEEN THE WOODS AND THE WATER’ BY PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR
In the 1930s, Leigh Fermor set off across Europe on foot. This book is his follow-up to A Time of Gifts and covers his time in Hungary and Romania. It has been called the most beautiful travel book in English.
‘THE LAND OF GREEN PLUMS’ BY HERTA MULLER
This extraordinary story, of a group of young people living in a Romanian communist dictatorship before fleeing to Germany, earned its author the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009.
‘THE BALKAN TRILOGY’ BY OLIVIA MANNING
A series of three novels depicting a remarkable portrait of a marriage, a haunting evocation of a vanished way of life, and
an ironic comedy of manners in a breaking world.
‘OPERATION AUTONOMOUS’ BY IVOR PORTER
Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Porter took a job in Romania teaching English. He left in 1940 but returned in 1943 as part of a plot to overthrow the pro-German government. Operation Autonomous not only hastened the end of the war by six months but had a profound effect on the post-war settlement of Eastern Europe.
If you would like to buy any of these books, I recommend my favourite bookshop, Heywood Hill in London’s West End.