Charlie Ottley is back. After the success of his stunning four part Wild Carpathia series, Charlie is presenting another TV series, “Flavours of Romania”, which airs this month for the first time. OZB sat down for a chat with this honorary Romanian from England.
by Douglas Williams
You can tell a lot about a person by their heroes. Charlie Ottley, journalist, broadcaster, environmentalist, biker and massive fan of Romania, cites Paul Watson as one of his. Watson was a founder member of Greenpeace, but left, partly because he considered it not militant enough. Watson went on to set up Sea Shepherd, which works in marine conservation through direct action, notably intercepting Japanese whaling ships in the Southern Ocean. ‘Zeal’ is a word that can easily be applied to Charlie. He has it in spades and, currently, that zeal is once more being applied to his beloved Romania and, specifically, this country’s incredible, natural environment and rich heritage. Charlie is, on the one hand, very, very fond of Romania, but he’s also agitated – close to the point of apoplexy – at what he sees as the wanton waste and destruction taking place nationwide.
Rarău Mountain at dawn
“Flavours of Romania” is a nine part documentary series that explores the different regions of Romania – Transylvania takes two episodes, and the dishes that hail from each. This will air in English with subtitles on TVR1 at 21.00 from March 24th. In this delightful series, Charlie can be seen crisscrossing the country on his trusty Harley. It’s beautifully shot with his trademark, richly-textured cinematography and it would be easy to see it as a love letter to Romania, except that there are many parts that should act as a wake up call, too.
“Romania has the last truly great wilderness in Europe, it’s amazing and it’s invaluable and yet, it is in grave danger. Currently, 3 hectares per hour are being felled. Think about it! At that rate it’s not going to last long,” says Charlie, struggling to maintain his composure. “And for what? To make cheap furniture, flooring or even just for firewood. So this wonderful forest which has stood for thousands of years, that’s home to all of these creatures – bears, wolves, lynx and many others – is being chopped down and then it’s gone forever and who loses out?” Charlie and his team risked life and limb gaining footage of some of the carnage taking place up near the Ukrainian border. Using drones to film, they narrowly escaped the wrath of the local lumber mafia. “We were followed wherever we went, it was hairy! I worried for our safety.” He continues, “people need to realise these forests are worth far more to Romania standing.”
If you are reading this, then there’s a good chance you are among the 300,000+ people who have seen the Facebook trailer for “Flavours of Romania” which, in itself, is something of a marketing feat.
Charlie and the crew at the Brâncuși Museum in Hobiţa
One of the things that Charlie hopes to impart through his series is the potential revenue that could be available to Romania and Romanians through tourism. “If you look at a country like Scotland and you see what they do with their tourism industry, you get an idea of what could be done here with just a little planning, investment, education etc. And, beautiful though Scotland undoubtedly is, it’s smaller and with less wilderness and, actually, it has less history and heritage than Romania has and yet, it’s one of that country’s biggest revenue generators – you’re hard pushed to get a hotel bed year round. People really want what Romania has to offer and they are willing and able to pay good money for it, but it needs to be better preserved and better presented. There are thousands of Germans, French, Brits etc. who are quite happy shelling out €100 a night for a hotel or guesthouse and then paying another €30 per head for dinner, but they expect a certain quality for that. There is quality in Romania, look at places like Zabola, the Mihai Eminescu Trust properties and Raven’s Nest, but there are also a lot of places where the quality of both the property and the service is entirely lacking.”
He mentions the Imperial Spa in Băile Herculane, which was the grandest spa resort in Europe at the height of the Austro Hungarian Empire as an example: “It is crying out for some investment and preservation, it’s amazing but it’s falling down and nobody seems to care. There’s the mosaic at Histria Fortress in Dobrogea which is 3,000 years old and there is currently nothing to stop people taking a bit home… Can you imagine how such a piece of heritage would be treated in France? Many people here have the mindset that old is bad. It may be the case with a car or a phone, but with heritage like this, protecting it is the civilised thing to do. Romania needs to embrace its past.”
The Column of the Infinite in Târgu Jiu (left)
With the carpet makers of Bechet (right)
Making traditional Poale în brâu pie, Moldova style
Wholesome food and drink made from naturally organic and, of course, local produce epitomises just what Romania has to offer and Charlie, for one, is convinced there’s a huge appetite for this globally. “You can climb mountains, bike through comparatively untouched villages, trek and ride through vast forests, see incredible wildlife, birdlife, ancient castles, fortresses and monasteries or catch cutting edge art, music and bars in the cities and it’s all got this unique Romanian flavour which is incredibly appealing to folks around the world. Much of Romania is Tolkien-esque, like New Zealand but way cheaper and more accessible.” Charlie is hoping TV channels around the world will soon be putting his “Flavours of Romania” message out there encouraging not only people to come and experience this amazing country but also nudging the relevant authorities here to act before it’s too late.
Dance of the Bears at Popa Museum in Târpești Traditional Music in Crișana
Charlie concludes: “With the preservation of Romania’s natural and cultural heritage, its forests, its biodiversity and its patrimony, tourism could grow to become the biggest source of revenue, not just for rural areas but for the country as a whole, as has happened in Scotland. Imagine being paid to hang on to your patrimony and to preserve your ancient forests? This way Romania’s fragile but priceless landscapes can continue to bring prosperity and a sustainable future for everyone.”
Cooking lunch with the fishermen at the mouth of the Danube
Ok, so I ate many amazing things all over Romania in the course of making “Flavours of Romania” but of them all probably the very best, most memorable was at Green Village eco lodge in Sfântu Georghe, on the mouth of the Danube. We had a “ciorbă off” (err, like a bake off..) between resident chef Sorin and Anca, one of the local ladies. We had two open fires. She cooked the traditional ciorbă de pește while Sorin prepared his own variation using a few extra secret ingredients that you can only find out about if you watch the show. The result was something more closely resembling a crab bisque which was impressive considering the main ingredient was catfish and no seafood was used whatsoever. Incredible!