On May 24, 2010, a four-man team from the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts flew from Athens to Bucharest. We flew on a half-empty 737. There were manuscripts to shoot in two cities very far apart from each other—Craiova and Iasi (pronounced “Yawsh”). We needed to split up, so we rented two SUVs from the local car rental agency at the airport. One team went to Craiova, the other to Iasi.
We were a bit perplexed when our Google Maps indicated that each route, even though largely on national highways (the rough equivalent of the Interstate in the US), would take many more hours than we would have expected. For our route to Iasi, the 400 kilometers was to take 7–8 hours. That’s less than 250 miles. The estimate came to 35 mph with no traffic—at best. We soon found out why.
Within a few miles from the Bucharest airport, we hit road that was scraped down to the nubs. The top layer of asphalt was gone, ready to be poured again. We went on this bone-jolting road for about 5 km. Then, it smoothed out and we thought we were out of trouble.
We continued on national highways all the way to Iasi. Not one of the roads was a freeway. (We learned that our colleagues had a better time getting to Craiova, with good roads and a freeway for much of the distance.) Lots of stop lights punctuated the highway, slowing us to a crawl. There was no divider between two-way traffic. For the most part, it was a single lane with a wide shoulder in each direction. Oncoming traffic would regularly spill over into our lanes—at 140 km an hour—causing us to quickly slide over to the shoulder to avoid impact.
Meanwhile, the other team of two people were on their way to Craiova. Bob was going 130 km an hour in a 100 kph zone (“Bob” is not his real name; I’m using it to protect the guilty), while Peter slept. A policeman waved his finger at Bob, while he was in the process of giving someone else a ticket. Bob pulled over and waited a couple hundred yards down the road. The cop didn’t show up, so Bob went on. Then, he sped up to 147 km per hour and passed another cop who did a similar finger-wave (from his description, I envisioned the finger-wave as the way your mother used to do when you were in deep trouble). Bob decided that that didn’t mean to pull over so he kept going at the same speed. A couple of minutes later, three police cars had their sirens blaring and lights flashing. They pulled him over, and a very large officer got out of his patrol car and gave Bob a loud Romanian lecture. Then, he gave him a ticket for going 50% over the speed limit. The price was 60 Lei! (This comes out to about 15 Euros.) Shucks, maybe I’ll speed through Romania on my next visit…
Back to the road less traveled: as we made our way to Iasi, we had to turn onto a different national highway. At first, we thought we had gotten on to the wrong road. We checked the GPS: it was the right road. It wasn’t really a road as much as it was 35 km of car-eating potholes.
This was the last leg of the trip for us before we got into Iasi. Although the terrain was rather flat overall, the road was unspeakably bad. Potholes that we have seen in the States would be welcome here, since they are only a couple of inches deep and usually no more than several inches wide. These were from another planet. On average, there were several hundred potholes every 100 yards. And not the kind we see in the States. These were as deep as six to eight inches and as wide as four or five feet. We were forced to travel at about 20 miles an hour on the top end, and slow down to 10–15 when the bigger potholes were simply unavoidable.
In the 35 km road, we counted 20 cars total coming and going. We also counted 24 cows and horses on the road in the same span. At times, there were multiple horse-and-buggy contraptions occupying the single lane. Once there were five in a row, yet no cars were backed up behind them until we showed up! This is the first time I’ve been on a national highway for any length of time in which more animals than vehicles were filling the lanes. We also came across kids playing soccer on the “highway”—twice.
I’ve never experienced such bad roads in my life—including the dirt-road hairpin switchbacks going up to monasteries on the island of Andros, Greece. The path we took looked rather serpentine even though the road was straight because we would weave to the left and right to avoid the larger potholes, never able to avoid the smaller ones. At one point, we were behind a car that was weaving all over the road while the oncoming vehicle was doing the same. They narrowly missed each other as they swerved back into their own lanes just a couple of feet before impact. One concentrates more on missing potholes than missing cars on the DN24.
Not only did we see horse-drawn carts on the highway, but also people walking their cows home, taking up the only lane. There was no danger since the few cars that braved the road into Iasi were going at a snail’s pace. In fact, we got stares everywhere as we were snapping pictures of the cows, horses, soccer-playing kids, and carts: this was routine life to these country folk, nothing out of the ordinary.
After that grueling road, we were grateful to make it to the hotel. Our time in Iasi, shooting an uncatalogued manuscript at the Museum of Literature under the direction of Dr. Dan Jumara, was on the opposite end of the continuum from the DN24. Dr. Jumara and his assistant, Juliani, were extremely helpful, very friendly, easy to work with. We really didn’t want to leave. But when we did, after going through the DN24 again (described by locals as the only way out of town or the best way out of town—whatever the description, a very bad road was in the cards) the bumper of our new rental SUV fell off! Meanwhile, the other team took a side trip to Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, and hiked the 1440 steps up to the top of Vlad the Impaler’s home. Maybe we didn’t have it so bad after all.
Be looking for posts at www.csntm.org on the manuscripts that we had the privilege of photographing in Greece and Romania.