Travelling in Romania, ‘Turisti non a caso’ – Article in the Balkan Observer

“A group of students setting out to discover Italy first and then Romania: Timisoara, Baile Herculane, Orsova, Bucarest: a journey to overcome prejudice through curiosity and learning. Our collaborator Amanda Wilson’s travel book

Before my trip to Romania this summer – an epic journey from Bologna to Bucharest crossing 21 days and six different Romanian cities – an Italian friend, who lived and did research in Romania, said something I remembered often during my trip: “Salutami la mia Romania.”  Say hello to my Romania for me.

My friend’s greeting to her Romania reminded me of the nostalgic longing of the Romanian word dor, a word Romanian-American novelist Domenica Radulescu evokes frequently in her debut novel Train to Trieste (which I carried with me on my journey), a coming of age and homeland exodus story set in the time of Ceausescu.

The word dor describes the feeling the main character, a young Romanian woman forced into exile, feels when she thinks of her childhood in the Carpathians from the distance of her new-found home in the United States. My friend’s dor, bittersweet longing, for Romania was that of an Italian who is fond of Romania, a country so many Italians mythologize, romanticize, and even fear…”

To continue reading this article, visit The Balkan and Caucasus Observer

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Europe’s heirloom grains take root in Romania (organically)

About seven years ago, a group of young, Swiss farmers acquired the land they would need to actualize their dream of running an organic farm – in Romania.  Those 800 hectares would become Bio Farmland, a farm in the village of Firiteaz, Romania, just outside the bustling city of Timisoara.  Bio Farmland specializes in heirloom grains that meet Switzerland’s strict standards for organic labeling.  Switzerland, surrounded by EU member countries but not a member itself, is known for its strict qualifying standards for classifying and labeling organic products.  Its standards are even stricter than those of the EU.  Lukas Kelterborn, development manager with Bio Farmland, said the farm exported 600 tons of grains to Germany and Switzerland this year and hopes to export 800-1,000 next year.  The farm, unable to fill

Lukas Kelterborn

the total orders of some of its buyers with just its own grain production, exports in collaboration with a consortium of other Swiss farmers working in Romania.  He said there were about three or four farms in Romania that have all-Swiss ownership.  The market price for organic, heirloom grains that meet strict Swiss standards can reach up to 5.35 euros per kilo.  “The Swiss have a niche in that area,” Kelterborn said.  Barley comprises about 10 percent of the farm’s exports and goes to Swiss buyers who use the grain for beer production.  The heirloom grain spelt (sometimes called spelta), an old type of wheat grain known for its unique flavor, comprises another 25 percent.  Swiss mills buy the grain to process and sell to bakeries in Switzerland.  Bio Farmland also cultivates emmer, einkorn and rye grains.

The plowless farming production method

Between the farm’s harvest time in June and July, weeds have plenty of time to take root before the next season’s crop is seeded in September and October.  While normal farming methods use a tilling and seeding method, farmers here use a unique, non-traditional method to weed which leaves the different layers of topsoil intact.  “We don’t plow at all,” Kelterborn says.  “We have another machine with sort-of “arrows” at a level of five to seven centimeters which cut the roots of the weeds below the surface.”  After cutting the roots of the weeds, the machine plants the next crop of seeds immediately.  “The grains we want to grow have a growth advantage.”

The first two centimeters of soil have special bacteria with different animals than deeper below the surface.  The next two to three centimeters have a different bacterial makeup, and at ten centimeters the composition of the soil changes yet again. Traditional farming methods use plowing to prepare and weed the soil, but this plowing disturbs the soil up to a

Farmer with a special weeder-seeder machine used in the plowless farming method

depth of some 30 centimeters.  The non-traditional method of weeding and planting gives farmers a new way of interacting with the soil.  “With this system, you keep the stratification,” Kelterborn explains.  “In organic farming you see many crazy people who try different things because with regular farming you do have a lot of problems and you think ‘now how can we do this differently’.'”

Kelterborn, who is originally from Munich but a Swiss citizen, spends 14 days to three weeks in Romania per month, and the rest of his time in Switzerland.  He travels the farm grain warehouses and the farm’s office, set up in an old schoolhouse, on a bicycle with his leather briefcase attached to the bike’s cargo

Farmer with products labeled in Romanian and sold in Romania

rack.   In the farm office building, a little supply room displays farm products that are sold in little organic shops in Romania, including tinctures, flower tisane, spices, salts, salves, specialty mustards, twika (palinka/grappa), and grains, neatly packaged and labeled in Romanian for Romanian customers.   Next year, the farm plans to deliver soybeans for tofu production.

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Reggae Beats in Bucharest

Robert Zaharia and the Kaya Foundation held the second annual reggae festival in Bucharest this year, marking a continuation towards the diversification of the musical landscape in Romania. Zaharia also collaborates with art galleries and other concert venues as an event organizer. But while he is optimistic about new genres giving music-lovers more options, he has  different feelings about one popular music style called Manele, a sort of wildly popular style of hyperbolized traditional Roma music – adapted and abstracted for a broad audience – in Romania.

L: Robert Zaharia, R: Barbara Cassioli

Can you tell me how you first became interested in organizing a reggae festival in Romania?

Nothing existed before we started this in Romania. There were just a few people doing this, not just in Bucharest, but all around the country. We started it two and a half years ago.

How are you organized? We have a group. Kaya Foundation is the name.

What kind of festivals and activities are you organizing?

We just had a festival that we organized for the second time here. We organize a lot of different things like concerts and events, as well as events out in nature. I can’t name just one activity. Some are planned and some just happen. We were not the only ones who are doing these kinds of things. Starting about two years ago, us and other people have started to do things. But still, I mean everything now, if we are talking about Reggae, in my opinion, it is all at the beginning if you compare it with what is happening in other countries in Western Europe. There, they have music industries, but here it is just the beginning. Here it is difficult to support events like this because, as I told you, we are not like in Western Europe where you can speak of industries because there are not a lot of firms that are interested in sponsoring events like this because, at this point, there are not a lot of people who are interested in attending events like this. So far, it is a work we have to do on our own.

How do you finance your events?

We finance them and from time to time we get small help. For example, we found an airline

Robert Zaharia in Bucharest

that gives us free tickets for artists. We pay only the airport taxis and not the ticket for flying the artist to the festival. We have never had one event that had even half the budget paid. We just sometimes get small help. That is just a little part of the whole production.

In the last two years, we have also been organizing events in art galleries and organizing music events there. I work with different art galleries and work in production with different festivals.

Do you DJ?

I prefer to organize the moment for other artists and people to express themselves rather than to express myself, but it has happened.

When did you first hear reggae music?

I didn’t develop my reggae culture here, rather at festivals like Sziget, in Slovenia, other festivals in Western Europe. Wherever I could afford to go, I went. I developed (my taste for reggae) it in other countries, not here, because we didn’t have it here.

How do people respond to reggae?

Bucharest

It depends on each different person.

Why does Romania need reggae?

Because they (Romanians) need to know about more things than they are aware of now. Someone has to show them other choices than the choices that already exist now.

(Q: Barbara Cassioli) How many people are reggae fans in Bucharest?

For any given event you can count on a few hundred, 3 or 400 in Bucharest. It is all at the beginning, but three or four years ago, nothing existed.

(Q: Barbara Cassioli) What is your opinion of manele?

It is all about money. It is a non-cultural style of music, if you can call it music. It was made created, in my opinion, just to make money. But the sad part is that I think most people – maybe not most people now – but for a lot of years this was the main type of music that was listened to here.

What kind of people listen to manele?

People generally who don’t have a high level of education. Mostly poor people because in this music you can find inspiration from poor people that want to be rich. I mean, it’s nothing spiritual or educational, it’s just about money, girls, cars…those are the topics that they generally sing about. A lot of gypsies [sic] that play this music, and many of them are very good musicians when they are not playing this music. When they plan manele, they are playing for money. There was a project, where they went into the Romanian neighborhoods, they combined their music with the vocal and percussion from the gypsy [sic] tradition (for example, Shukar collective).

What other styles of music are taking root in Romania?

For example, hip-hop, but it has been developing for many years. Now I think music niches are growing. Four years ago, the cultural variety did not exist. There are more and more people that are choosing their own way, also in music. They are all developing, but slowly.

( Barbara Cassioli) Graffiti didn’t exist four years ago, but now it is everywhere.

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In Baile Herculane, a small pension persists in the town’s changing tourist industry

Like many residents in the resort town of Baile Herculane, Romania (pop: 6,000), Stana Radoi was, at one time, employed in the town’s tourism industry. She worked as a waitress and her husband worked as a cook before the couple decided to open their own pension in 2003. Their house, flanked by a chicken coop where a rooster announces the break of each day, sits on the side of a verdant hill overlooking a valley and rocky mountains that jut into the sky and slope gently into wooded hillside on the other side of the Cerna River.   In the near distance, on the other side of the river, a palace-like villa and a Communist-era concrete, block hotel sit side by side – both echoing Romanian club music across the valley when night descends on the Cerna.

Stana Radoi

From employee to owner

Stana and her family manage the operation of the pension and, little by little, what started out as a 1-room facility has increased to 8 rooms and 2 shared bathrooms. “At first it was an experiment,” Stana said. The Radois don’t employ any workers, but their son Ilie helps them manage the pension during his summer school break.  The pension hosts guests mainly in summer and, in autumn and spring, is open on the weekends. The cost for a room is 50 RON (about 12 Euro) and does not include breakfast – the serving of meals would put the pension in a different tax bracket. Ms. Stanoi said most guests at her pension come from Romania, but she has hosted a group from France for two years in a row now. For advertisement, Ms. Stanoi said she used business cards, and the name of her pension is listed on the web site of the town hall. “Word of mouth is the best advertisement,” Ms. Radoi said.

The changing face of Baile Herculane

During Communism, the state sent workers to state-run hotels for their annual holidays – about 3 weeks per year.  There are many Communist-era hotels in Baile Herculane and they were the most popular facility for tourists before 1989.  But with massive economic changes after 1989, tourist preferences have changed too.  Now, according to Ms. Radoi, tourists prefer to stay at private houses.  “After the Revolution of 1989, the hotels started to degrade,” she said.  Former state-run block-style hotels are now less popular as most tourists who can afford it choose hotels with more services or pensions in private houses.  But the Communist-era concrete, high-rise block hotels are not the only buildings that have suffered since the regime change; Hapsburg-era buildings have been structurally neglected.  “It used to be the pearl of Romanian tourism,” Ms. Radoi’s son, Ilie, said, translating for his mother.   Ms. Stanoi echoes the pervasive feeling in Baile Herculane that privatization of the town’s hotels had a negative impact on tourism.  In July, the Wall Street newspaper of Romania reported that a major stakeholder in ownership of the town’s hotels, The Argirom Group, owed the state 17 million Euros and that some of the town’s hotels would again be auctioned off.  While the sellers of Baile Herculane’s historic hotels might be forced to put a price tag on the structures, residents like Ms. Stanoi believe that Baile Herculane and its natural surroundings hold an invaluable charm for tourists.  Local officials continue to lobby for European project funds.  The municipality is investing millions of Euros into the renovation of a Habsburg-era hotel called Villa Elisabetta.  After all, there is hope.  And small pension owners like Ms. Stanoi are still making plans for the future, even if their view of the recent past is shadowed.

“If you come as a tourist, you come as a friend”

Despite changes in Baile Herculane, which lists 50 operating pensions on its official site, the Radoi family has worked steadily each year since 2003 to make improvements at the pension.  The Radois built their own road to access their hillside house by car, facilitating car access and a steep climb for those who can find a parking place.  The family also made

Terraced hillside at the House of Radoi in Baile Herculane

several stories of terraces, each one offering a different view of the valley, a different resting point.  One one terrace is a grill, on another a swing, on another a picnic table under a shelter.  Ms. Radoi said she tries to treat each guest as a friend.  She recalls a time a Romanian woman brought her family for a 2-week stay at the Radoi pension.  When it came time for departure and to say goodbye to Stana Radoi, the family’s woman cried.  “If you come as a tourist, you come as a friend,” Ms. Radoi said. She has plans for even more improvements at the pension.  I ask Stana Radoi, who has dedicated her life’s work to hosting tourists, where she, personally, would go on vacation.  She tells me she hasn’t had a vacation in 15 years, but if she had to choose, maybe a Western European country, maybe Italy.

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Baile Herculane: Forgotten Spa Town of the Habsburgs (Slide Show)

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Forgotten Spa town of the Habsburgs

In this valley of Romania’s Banat region where the Cerna river winds between mountains of granite and limestone and the smell of sulfur waters wafts through long-empty ballrooms, queens and kings of a past empire once found respite from the stoic palaces of Vienna. Here, a spa was built especially for Queen Elizabeth, affectionately known as Sissy. Several kilometers past the new city of Caras-Severin and its cinder-block villas and high-rise hotels, the grandiose 18th century spa town of Baile Herculane comprises an enchanting cluster of Habsburg-era thermal baths, hotels, and dormitories where Austrian and Romanian soldiers once vacationed and Hapsburg glitterati such as Sissy and Franz Ferdinand laid their royal heads. The newer, Communist-era hotels housed workers who were allotted two weeks of vacation every summer. Queen Elizabeth, known affectionately as Sissy, perhaps the most profoundly adored yet restless Habsburg royal, met a tragic end. She was murdered by an Italian anarchist as she took one of her cherished solitary walk along the shore of a lake in Geneva. But at least some of the days of her life of 60 years were spent here in Baile Herculane where a now-decrepit expanse of pavilions, sweeping balconies, verandas, and luxurious hotels – small compared to the Hofburg, but still not exactly modest – hint at the 19th century splendor of the place.

Villa Elisabetta. The town of Baile Herculane has dedicated 3 Million Euro to the building's restoration

Local authorities have dedicated 3 million Euro to restoring the hotel Villa Elisabetta (where Franz Joseph once stayed), which hosted guests up until the revolution of 1989 when the state-maintained buildings fell into disrepair.  In 2001, most of the hotels in the town, both Habsburg and Communist-era structures, were privatized.  In 2001, a major stake in 10 of the city’s historic and Communist-era hotels was sold to the Argirom group (under Hercules S.A.) which bought the stake with a promise to invest in the restoration of the historic Habsburg-era buildings. The communist-era hotels bought include: the Diana, the Minerva, Aphrodita, and Hercules hotels. The Habsburg-era buildings bought by Argirom group include some of the city’s most cherished structures, including pavilions, barracks, baths, and hotels. Many in Baile Herculane, including the town’s mayor, accuse the company, owned by Romanian businessman Iosif Armas, of letting the city’s Habsburg-era cultural real estate degrade, failing to invest in promised renovations, and focusing only on the Communist-era hotel complex which includes the Diana, Minerva, Aphrodita, and Hercules hotels.  Estimates place the actual value of the hotels, including the Habsburg structures, at more than 23 million Euros, not including the structures’ inestimable cultural heritage value.  Recent news articles in Romania have announced that Argirom is deeply in debt and the company’s lenders are finally demanding collection of their debt.  Romania’s “Wall Street” newspaper reported in July that Argirom’s corporate rights have been dissolved.   Baile Herculane’s historic hotels might change hands again.   “This should be a UNESCO World Heritage site,” said one tourist, standing in Baile Herculane’s old square.  One local said that the municipality had been awarded at least 10 European Project Fund grants in recent years, but wondered aloud why other projects – new projects in places that seem to have less cultural and historic value – have been awarded much more funding. “They don’t want to invest in Eastern Europe,” said one local tourism worker. Some Italian tourists said they suspected the European Union of perpetuating a sort of intentional state of developmental stasis in countries like Romania: ‘why should the East compete with the West?,” they ask. “If tourists realize what a beautiful place it is – if it becomes a real attraction – it could really compete with places in the West.

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Fighting Human Trafficking on Both sides of the Border

According to statistics from the municipality of Bologna, 40 percent of all female sex workers working on the streets of the city are Romanian. Of these women – including minors and unaccompanied youth who have just reached the threshold (age 18) when they

Photo: Alessandro Gabrielli

no longer receive housing in state-run Placement Centers – some are victims of human trafficking. The association Generatie Tanara (Young Generation) is the partner of Turisti non a caso in Romania and our host in Timisoara. Generatie Tanara operates a recuperation and reintegration program for victims of human trafficking, as well as trafficking prevention and education programs for area youth in Timis County, Romania. The organization’s work was a point of particular interest for Barbara and Alessandro. Barbara and Alessandro, who are traveling with our group in Romania, are members of the Bologna organization ViaLibera, a group dedicated to serving as allies to street sex workers. ViaLibera operates a mobile night unit, accompanies women on clinical visits, distributes condoms to facilitate safe (protected) sex practices, and provides support to prostitutes who want to leave the streets and return to their home countries.

In Timisoara, Barbara and Alessandro had the chance to meet with the director of Generatie Tanara, Mariana:

Many of the women you work with on the streets of Bologna are Romanian. What was it like to have discussions with an organization in Romania that is working in the same area?

A: Barbara: It was interesting to have a point of contact in Romania in order to make some plans because sometimes girls want to go back (home to Romania.) For us, it is important to have Generatie Tanara in order to have a point of connection – a safe place – when we know that girls are followed by their traffickers. Sometimes girls go back home, but in cases where it was the family that sold her, she ends up being sent to another (Western) country to continue working in street prostitution. It is interesting to know

Enza Stoia (Turisti) shares a moment with a client of Generazie Tanara when they realize their mothers have the same name

about a Romanian woman who is doing this work because we see all the girls in the street but we only knew a little bit about Romania; we would be interested in working together and maybe organizing some plans for prevention and information in Italy and Romania. We think the only thing that we can really do is inform people and students that people on the streets of Bologna are not there for pleasure but because they are forced. Sometimes it is Italy, it is strange but it has happened, that people ask “isn’t she there because she likes working on the street?” This meeting was important because she (Mariana of Generatie Tanara) explained to us the context in which girls are coming.

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