Berca is overrated. We planned a two-day stop here, and I already regret it. The trip was boring, the landscape is dull, and even the goats have nothing to add to this insipid outing. Yeah. The cute, lovely, always make-you-smile goats are tedious!
Berca looks like a poor – albeit cleaner – neighborhood of Bucharest – and Bucharest is far, far away. But being here means being close to Pâclele Mari (and Mici) and the Mud Volcanoes. 20 minutes close. Or far if your glass is half empty. I like my glass half full. Always. Let’s roll with it.
We stay in Berca because we didn’t know that they have accommodation in Pâclele although I assumed things have changed since I ran barefoot on the Moon – glass half full, remember?
We drove through landscapes that remind me of the Children of the Corn till we reached the entrance to the reservation.
Some four cars are parked in front of the gates, all of them Dacias, and I look at our Ferrari-red Opel Astra that contrasts with the green of the vegetation like an eyesore, thinking how I don’t want to be here right now because Romanians tend to stare at foreign red cars. A sign nearby reads “Do not leave until you eat soup and sausages.” It rhymes in Romanian. It’s also supposed to be witty and funny. It fails lamentably.
The condescended expression on my face while reading the sign does not escape my party of three. As I translate the meaning of the words for the people in my company, I cannot help a craving for soup and sausages. Romanian sausages. Not the Austrian shop-bought bratwurst full of phosphates. A real, homemade promise distracts me from the Moon-walking childhood memory, and I give in.
“Yeah, guys, let’s do this first!”
Granted, we are all hungry and in the middle of nowhere, with a promise of outer worlds beyond the gates of the reservation.
But the sausage is stronger than that walk on the Moon. We decide to have the sausage, and we follow the sign.
A complex of buildings appears around the corner. Their roofs were visible from the parking lot, but they were not enough to make me curious. The sausage sign did the trick.
There’s a terrace right by the entrance, busy with people having lunch.
“Where did they come from?” I ask without expecting an answer, but Thomas has to prove again that he is a know-it-all.
“They stay here,” he answers.
Upon second thought, he must be right. I see some cars parked in the yard, behind the fence. We find a table and ask for the menu after with nod around greeting the locals.
Holger sees they have beer and smacks his lips.
“That’s what I am talking about,” he murmurs. It doesn’t take a lot to make Holger happy. Irina giggles:
“They have ciorba de carne la borcan,” she reads the menu.
Translating the name of the dish is impossible. It’s a local specialty, a soup made with smoked meat that was preserved over winter in lard in a jar. It may not sound appetizing, but it is one of the best soups they have on the menu.
“You get that one, and I’ll have the bean soup,” I tell her.
“Ah, no, not with soup,” she argues. She knows I will want to try.
“I’ll get the meat soup too,” Thomas says. That settles it. I’ll have something to try. Knowing Holger, he’ll probably only have sausages and beer. A lot of beer.
To be honest, sausages are also the dish I am looking forward to tasting. They are Pleșcoi sausages, which are only available in this part of the country. We order, and I continue to stare at the menu. The food is dirt cheap. I do the math in my mind, and I gather we’ll be paying less than 120 RON, meaning about 30 € for the whole meal for four, including three soups, four gargantuan portions of sausages, and four beers if we don’t decide to order more.
We eat, and the food reminds me of childhood, of the soup cooked in a cauldron over an open fire my grandma used to make. We spend a good two hours at the table, eating and chatting, and Holger orders beer after beer.
“I want to walk barefoot on the Moon,” I say and suddenly stand up.
Holger gives me one of his puzzled looks:
“Wait for us, why don’t you?”
“I don’t want to,” I say. “You are taking forever, and I bet we cannot stay here tonight.”
“No biggie,” says Thomas. “Let’s book two rooms.”
For what seems an eternity, I stare at him with a look that ponders his sanity.
“Pensiune!” I bark back at him eventually. “You need reservations,” I explain.
Holger and Thomas look at each other and back at me:
Thomas storms from the table and disappears somewhere in the complex. I know he is trying to prove that they have rooms available.
I sit back down, and I wait. It takes Thomas forever, but he finally returns:
“You are right. They have rooms for three or four, but none available. Apparently, you need reservations here in season.”
We stay at Casa Matei in Berca, which is not far, but the atmosphere at Pensiunea Vulcanii Noroiosi is different, as if the magic of the volcanoes envelops the boarding house and all its facilities. How I wish I knew they had accommodation next to this incredible lunar landscape.
I don’t remember the pension; I don’t even remember the gate at the entrance. There was nothing here when I was a child. The reservation was free for all. Local shepherds used to herd their sheep and goats on the hills nearby. Sometimes, a kid would get lost, and you could hear it bleating from a distance. There was a lot of trash around the volcanoes, and many local children would put their feet and hands inside the craters, which is not dangerous, but not the best thing for the environment. The Mud Volcanoes are not hot. They keep a constant temperature of 3°C year-round.
I was never tempted to touch the mud or the volcanoes, but I enjoyed feeling the cracked earth beneath my bare feet, and I longed for that sensation.
It was late after four pm, and the ground was still hot and rough when I finally got to take off my sandals. Then I walked for a while taking in the scenery: it was clean now. No litter. No goats roaming free. No children dipping their naked little feet in the craters. It changed, but somehow, it stayed the same.
I wish I knew they had food and boarding at the gates, just to be able to make these moments last longer; to spend here two days instead of a couple of hours. Instead of researching a destination I last saw 30 years ago, I just drove on the road I remembered from my youth. But I take comfort in seeing that besides the boarding house and road signs, the wilderness of the land still bears the mystic of a childhood dream.