June is when most Italian families ponder summer vacation plans: beach, mountain or a trip abroad. Everyone gets a say and there’s usually a compromise. Not where I grew up. My father was judge and jury. He did a decent job, not that we had a choice.
By age 20, I’d started traveling with friends. It was the 1980s and we could do our vacation shopping early since we all knew we’d have most of August off. After excursions to Adriatic coast, Spain and France, a fearless group of six decided to head for Mamaia, a popular Black Sea resort in then-Communist Romania, which we saw as a cheap and desirable destination (you couldn’t compare prices in the West to those in Soviet Bloc countries).
But it was mid-1989 and we’d have to cross still-united Socialist Yugoslavia to get to Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania. We used the month it took to get visas to read up as best we could on the Iron Curtain world.
On Aug. 1, 1989, the indomitable six: me, Paolo, Cenzino, Nicita, Andrea and Marco (il Brillo to us) piled into a Citroen BX and a Fiat Regata, three to a car, destination Mamaia Beach. We had experienced drivers, circus-sized tents, pasta, tomatoes, olive oil, and enough food to subsidize several African nations. Nothing could stop us. Or so we thought.
After 654 Italian kilometers we got to Gorizia, on the Yugoslav border. Next up Lubiana (now in Slovenia), Zagreb (Croatia), and Belgrade (Serbia), each one on Yugoslavia’s only main highway. Driving east was like going back in time. Outside Belgrade we ran out of Yugoslav dinars, and Italian lire or dollars weren’t an option. In Italy we would have been stuck. Here, the tollbooth attendant shrugged and lifted the barrier. “Buon viaggio,” he said. Hail communism!
Crossing the Danube on a long, fogged-in bridge, two unhappy-looking border troops emerged from the mist in long green coats (wasn’t it summer there?). Their first question: “American cigarettes?” We learned to memorize the request. We got to the Yugoslav-Romania border at around midnight. We were alone, not a car in sight, but we still waited two hours. Two armed Romanian soldiers stared at us from the other side probably wondering, “What the hell do these guys want here?”
At around 3 a.m. we crossed into Romania where an officer asked us to empty the car. He demanded $200 for the equivalent in Romanian Lei (he set the exchange rate) to let us into the country. Welcome to Romania.
In was 500 kilometers to Bucharest, which we wanted to see before heading for the Black Sea. The whole way we twisted through small towns along narrow roads — though most paved better the their pot-holed brethren in Rome. There were no rest stops or gas stations. If you wanted water (it was brown) you had to find a well and pull up buckets. Sipping from the top didn’t help. We had diarrhea for weeks. There were more posters singing Ceausescu’s praises than there are Vodafone ads in today’s Italy.
It was lunchtime when we got to grey, quiet and semi-deserted Bucharest. Time to shop. But the large food store we found had mostly empty shelves, a few rusty cans of fish, and a red pot marked “Made in the USSR,” which we bought immediately. It felt like we’d been catapulted backward to poverty-stricken Italy of the 1950s: people lined up to buy ice (only a select few had refrigerators) and meat was rationed. After a very basic restaurant meal, we hit the road again.
Finally, we got to Romania’s Palm Beach on the Black Sea, parking at campsite where we’d booked two large plots (they cost next to nothing). We were happy, excited, and ready for a swim. That’s when we were surrounded by gawkers who looked like they never seen a Westerner. We were fish in their aquarium. As for the resort, it looked more like a mock-up of the Sahara. Long dusty roads ran beside the rocky beaches. This was the place we’d spent three days getting to, sleeping by the side of the road or in the car.
The only alterative to the campsite was a hotel for foreigners, the BICAZ. The best they could offer the six of us was a single windowless room with a small bathroom. But the people were smart and generous. They shared what little they had. We did the same. That turned out to be a bad idea. After five days, we ordered out of the country within 48 hours. Somebody had probably told the secret police about our chats with the locals. We had little time for good byes. We gave away our Bermuda shorts and flip-flops, since no one there could get anything like them.
We drove through Transylvania (Count Dracula was on vacation), passed through Budapest, and swam in Lake Balaton (a fresh water lake). We also saw Vienna as well as parts of West Germany and Holland, before doubling back through France and onto Barcelona before finally heading home. In all, we covered more than 8,000 kilometers (nearly 5,000 miles) in 21 days, basically like driving from New York to Houston with a side trip to Seattle.
A few months after our trip, in November, the Berlin Wall came down. Soon after, the Ceausescu dictatorship collapsed. All of us still like to think we had something to do with it.
• A perfect partner for a trip down memory lane is Tuscan Syrah. Podere Bellosguardo Syrah IGT Toscana 2013 (100 percent Syrah; 13.5%; € 20) hails from the Casentino valley north of Arezzo where Luca and Nicoletta Miraglia run a family vineyard outside the town of Pratovecchio Stia.
It’s a marbled dark ruby red with an incredibly complex, spicy, and wild-side aroma. You’ll detect hints of humus, compost, balsamic herbs, fern, minerals and a pleasant whiff of bitter chocolate. The body is fresh and fruity, if slightly soft. The tannin is robust, even cutting. The aftertaste comes with hints of almond
Have it with Romanian mititei, grilled meatballs with black pepper, garlic and other traditional spices.