Southern Romania. On the buses that carry you between the small towns along the bank of the Danube a curious arrangement is in operation. At each stop the driver passes up and down the aisle collecting new fares. He offers me a student fare, for example, and then knocks ten per cent off that. To my inquiring look he responds only with a conspiratorial smile – and by neglecting to issue me with an actual ticket. Other passengers, deemed better off, are issued with tickets but reminded not to forget to hand them back in again as they leave the bus.
The ‘point’ of this will be obvious enough. It is only one or maybe two steps on from paying the house painter in cash, after all. To Romanians it is known as bişniţǎ (pron. ‘bish–nitze’), a parodic and diminutive form of the word for the West’s great panacea for all the world’s ills – I refer, of course, to business. But bişniţǎ is more than a word, and it encompasses much more than ‘paying in cash’. The last few years have seen the establishment, for example, of illegal and ferocious credit institutions in this part of Romania, operating apparently beyond the control of the state. Or ‘beyond the control’ of the mayor and local Police chiefs anyway.
The government elected in December 2004 as the entire region celebrated Ukraine’s Orange Revolution has impressed the EU with its readiness to tackle problems like this. But bişniţǎ is one of the many symptoms of that chronic mistrust of institutions, political or economic or any other kind, which is pervasive in much of south-eastern Europe and not without reason. It is not so much ‘mistrust’ as an absence of any experience of them to build on, the complete void where a wary faith in such institutions ought to be. If what an expanded EU hopes to install here, in addition to its business plans, is some such faith, then it will be serving Europe well.
But it’s people like that bus-driver who come to mind when I read wild rumours of the criminal excesses which ‘we’ must expect after Romanian accession in January 2007. Of the country’s relative lawlessness there can be no question for anyone accustomed to west European norms who has also spent more than a fortnight there. But the operative term, for me at least, after regular visits over more than five years, is ‘relative’. The clichés resorted to by journalists and politicians surely proceed above all from that over-heated, under-informed public imagination which is the proud achievement of affluent Europe’s mainstream press.
I think of the many remote places I’ve reached via buses like his, which western reporters find no cause to visit. There isn’t an awful lot for visitors ‘to do’ in these small towns along the Bulgarian border, for example, but the river is magnificent. I once found myself staying in Corabia – a fashionable resort before the Second World War which has been in decline ever since. At the ‘Hotel Impǎratul Traian’ I listened from my room to some spectacularly noisy plumbing.
It was the Emperor Trajan who conquered what is now Romania in 106 and part of his army must have passed through here. The story of his campaign is told in carvings which spiral to this day round the marble column in Rome which, like my hotel, bears his name. Admittedly, the Piazza Venezia seemed a long way off as I sat in the evenings on a terrace at the back of my slightly sinister lodgings. A Pepsi bottle re-filled with local vişinata kept my spirits up – home-made cherry brandy. The pair of owls that seemed to be nesting in the hotel’s attic exchanged wistful comments about their only guest far into the night, dozens of street dogs barked wretchedly and nightingales sang – with the silence and the darkness of the Danube running parallel to it all.
Corabia’s local museum has been closed for repairs for as long as anyone can remember. There are four textile sweat-shops in the town, two Italian-owned (Romintex, Veronica Fashion), one Turkish-owned (Rotex), another Romanian-owned (Bianca). But they don’t exactly advertise their presence. During the day a tourist can watch the Gypsies washing carpets in the river then spreading them out to dry in a field below a former café, now closed.
Gigantic barges crawl up-river against the current or fly downstream with it, past thickly wooded islands and hills on the Bulgarian side which reminded me of Canada. People used to cross over to shop in Nikopol by ferry from a nearby town before 1989 but the ferry has gone. Nobody seems to know why. The quay from which it used to leave stands next to an enormous derelict chemical plant, which you walk through on the way to the most popular beach in the area. The voices of shepherds calling to their flocks in Bulgarian carry easily across the water to the Romanian side, as the shouting of bathers in Romanian presumably does the other way. But people have to go hundreds of miles round if they want to meet. So they don’t.
This is what there is ‘to see’ here, apart from the Roman settlement a few miles upstream from Corabia. But Sucidava, as the ancient site is known, next to the modern village of Celei, is not a place to be passed over lightly. The road linking the towns along the Romanian side runs parallel to and about a mile in from the river. A dirt-track leading off that road at right-angles is signed to ‘Constantine’s Bridge’.
You can hardly make out the ‘bridge’, at the opening of which on July 5th 328 Constantine the Great is known to have been personally present. This was once the site of the second crossing of the lower Danube after the Iron Gates. Railings and a broken-down fence surround the foundations of one of the piers. In the seventeen centuries since it was formally opened by the most powerful man in the known world, the river has carried off everything except this, with more than a little help from villagers and marauding armies no doubt. A sort of large square bracket shape in rubble and concrete punched deep into the earth, it reads like Nature’s brief, sardonic comment on deluded humanity. Half a mile away the river skulks along behind a row of tall poplars and its modern embankments.
The remains of the border town which grew up next to this crossing are mostly underneath the village along the north side of what is now the main archaeological site. It was here along the middle Danube, early in the first century AD, that Imperial Rome first felt the pressure of those westward migrations which three centuries later would overwhelm it. Trajan’s campaigns here were his response to that pressure – and a grab for the gold mines of Transylvania.
A combination of the Danube and villagers in search of building material has demolished the south wall of the settlement, but a temple to Nemesis, a C6th Byzantine basilica and much besides have been excavated across the large area which has escaped. So a sign outside the entrance informs visitors.