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New Europe

Day Fifty-seven: Viseu de Sus, Maramures

The lumberjacks' train 
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The lumberjacks' train climbs up one of the most isolated valleys of the north Romanian province of Maramures.
Michael Palin - New EuropeEvery Monday morning a train filled with lumberjacks leaves Viseu de Sus for the high forest of the Maramures Mountains. At eight o'clock, with clear skies making for a bitterly cold morning, but holding out the promise of a beautiful day, we gather at the timber yard owned by a Swiss company, who have allowed us to ride up with them. Part of the attraction, aside from steam engines and lumberjacks, is that the 26-mile line is the only means of access to one of the most remote valleys of this border region.

Early morning at the lumber yard is anything but romantic. We stamp our feet against the cold as the sixty or seventy lumberjacks begin to gather, the majority of them arriving by foot or on horse-drawn carts. They're far from the rugged backwoodsmen of cliché. Ranging in age from teens to mid-fifties, these are tired men with craggy faces and chesty coughs. No colourful check shirts, rucksacks or all-weather mountain gear here. Instead they wear bobble hats, thin, often threadbare woollen jackets over shirts and sweaters and carry their belongings in plastic bags. There's a small shop and café nearby where the lumberjacks can buy supplies: sausages, slabs of lard, bread and tins of food. At the moment it is full of railway workers in oil-stained overalls, smoking as if their lives depended on it and despatching brandies at the same time. Someone makes a joke and they laugh, more out of habit than conviction.

A lady in a headscarf makes us tea, which comes in small glasses, ready-sugared like in India. Through a dusty window I can see the sunlight beginning to creep down the mountain on the far side of the valley, turning its forested flank into a pyramid of gold.

Just before 9.30 a plume of smoke erupts from inside the yard and a tank engine, Romanian-built in 1954, chugs out pulling a flat-bed wagon stacked with wood for the boiler, another wagon with seats but open at the sides, a covered coach and two or three low-loaders for timber.

Maximum speed on the line is 30 miles an hour, but we seldom reach 20 as we move out of Viseu de Sus, stopping at intervals to pick up more lumberjacks. It seems fast enough. One of the pleasures unique to the railway is the chance to have a snoop into people's back gardens and this is no exception. The houses we pass are old-fashioned, single-storey, with wooden slatted sides, outside toilets and wood-smoke curling from the chimneys. The grass cut from around them is stacked up in the pointed hayricks that are everywhere in the mountains and corn cobs dry in sheds beside piles of fresh-harvested pumpkins. Women look up from their rakes, scythes or axes as we pass. The men, I guess, are all on the train.

A card game is already under way on the open wagon in which we're travelling, and beer and tuica (the slightly less lethal, only once-distilled version of palinca) is already being passed around. I make a mental note to be well out of the way when this lot are chopping down trees.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Fifty-seven: Viseu de Sus, Maramures
  • Country/sea: Romania
  • Place: Vişeu de Sus
  • Book page no: 138

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