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February 2020

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Romania's springs tap a region's deep history

1 February 2020

Words: Palko Karasz | Photos: Akos Stiller

This is no ordinary water.

It flows from volcanic mountains nearby and pours into the springs here. At its best, it’s cool, clear and prickly, with a rich taste of minerals. At its worst, it can quickly develop a foul smell and stain everything in sight a dark amber. But residents swear by its curative powers.

Balint Vencel, 36, a frequent visitor, says the water helps with his kidney issues. “I’ve seen doctors and they didn’t help,” he said. “But ever since I’ve been drinking this water, I haven’t had any pain in my kidneys.”

The naturally fizzy water is slowly filtered through layers upon layers of volcanic rock, making it crystal clear and sparkling most of the time. In villages like Baile Homorod, dotted with cottages in sight of a single ski slope in the easternmost region of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, residents once hoped to monetise the springs – turning the region into the Switzerland of the east. They expected visitors to flock to spas and resorts and bathe and heal in the waters, as wealthy tourists did in the Alps.

That dream faded because of war, politics and economic failures.

After World War I, the empire collapsed, and the balneotherapy industry – natural healing based on therapies like cold and warm baths – eventually went out of fashion. The end of World War II brought Communism, and most of the private spas and resorts were nationalised, closed or mismanaged under state officials. Communist Romania was late to invest in tourism, and it focused not on the mountains but on the Black Sea Coast. In the 1980s, the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s repressive regime, along with increasing shortages, made the country an austere and unattractive destination for foreign tourists.

But reminders of the water culture are everywhere in the Transylvania region: in half-timbered villas of old spa towns, wooden pools in pristine surroundings built and used by villagers and roadside pavilions sheltering springs.

ANCIENT RITES

The mineral water is deeply embedded in the local culture and mythology. It’s Romanians’ favourite drink, advertised on billboards and television. Most shops sell local varieties – sparkling, mild and still – stocked next to internationally known brands.

Water is also part of many ancient local rites: On Easter Monday in some villages, young men visit girls to “sprinkle” them with ice-cold water – a ritual holding the promise of youth and fertility.

In one village, locals talk of two springs of salty water: One brings on stomach acid, the other cures it. Nowadays, popular springs post the water’s chemical composition to calm visitors’ fears of any ill effects.

For residents of the poor and secluded farming communities, the mountain springs are a luxury. Many drink the water instead of tap water, which they don’t trust because of all-too-recent memories of life under Ceausescu.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, tap water was a rare commodity in many parts of the country as the nation was recovering from decades of extreme austerity. Nothing but hollow hissing and a few drops flowed from the tap for most of the day. That water supply is still unreliable in some places: In the summer of 2018, for example, taps in Bacau, a city of 200,000, ran dry for five days because of a technical glitch.

“The dictatorship brought this experience of making the body vulnerable,”said Andrea Tompa, a novelist from the city of Cluj Napoca in western Transylvania, who grew up during the worst of the shortages. “It was a sense of control over the body, the opposite of disposing with my own body, deciding what feelings I will have.” She added, “But they couldn’t take away the mineral springs.”

Tompa, who hails from the region’s Hungarian-speaking community, now lives in Budapest. Her grandparents owned a small spa in the village of Zizin, where alleys in the shade of pine trees led to wooden pavilions with mineral water bubbling up from the earth. They specialised in water-based health treatments, one of hundreds of such enterprises in the wider region.

These businesses reflected an awakening of health consciousness among the European middle class in the early 20th century. Trends were inspired by the likes of Sebastian Kneipp, a Bavarian priest who believed in balneotherapy; walking barefoot on stones, dewy grass and snow; and keeping a mostly vegetarian diet.

But then the war came. “Healing with water faded away, and with it the world whose lifestyle included the bathing culture,” Tompa said. That included her grandparents’ spa, which exists now only on black-and-white greeting cards.

THE SURVIVAL OF A WATER CULTURE

Still, the springs have persevered because enterprising residents have fought for the survival of their water culture, teaming up to clean neglected fountains.

In Barzava, a village that lies on a plateau near the regional capital, Miercurea Ciuc, villagers renovated the old “peasants spa.” Just outside Miercurea Ciuc itself, a couple of concrete pools filled with amber water stand as unlikely survivors of a longgone era. The water bubbles up in one corner of the pools in periodic bursts, direct from the mountain, ice-cold and sparkling.

Roadside rituals around the flowing water have endured.

When I was a child growing up in Budapest, we would drive to Transylvania, where my grandmother lived. I remember stopping by the springs in Baile Homorod at the tail end of our overnight trips in my family’s rickety Mercedes minivan.

My mother would rummage around for a plastic bottle or two and join the long line of weary travelers to drink or to wash away the dust and fatigue of the road.

From there, the final 20 miles across the mountain to Miercurea Ciuc, where my grandmother lived, seemed like a breeze, as the rising sun shone through the pine forests. My grandmother herself swore by the water’s curative qualities, mainly for the stomach.

A TRAIN FULL OF POTATOES

Erzsebet Janosi, 61, who lives in Tusnad, a farming village, holds the keys to the local mineral-water museum, a single circular room holding old bottles, labels and other memorabilia. Next door is the water source, with slightly sparkling water flowing from two taps poking out of a wooden statue of an owl. Janosi’s father had the idea to drill for water in the village, in 1957

Tusnad paid for the drilling rights by sending the central authorities in Bucharest a train load of potatoes, the main crop in this mountainous region. The water has been flowing uninterrupted ever since, tainting the taps a rusty yellow.

Tap water in the village is still unpopular. “We tend to use spring water,” Janosi said. “The one from the tap is so hard it clogs the coffee machine up all the time.”

Travelers stop by on their way through Tusnad to drink or to take the water home. But Janosi has her own view of its rich taste. “It’s not as good after potato soup as it is after a plate of meat,” she said. “That’s for sure.”

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