This week we’ve been talking about our hotel and apartment stays in 2014. The Frenchman picked the quirky CitizenM in Amsterdam as his favorite place to rest his head. While the Frenchman decided immediately and without hesitation, for me the decision was more difficult, with the answer depending on what truly is hospitality.
Webster’s Dictionary defines hospitality as “generous and friendly treatment of visitors and guests: hospitable treatment.” According to some interesting statistics hospitality is a huge, trillion dollar industry with universities granting degrees in hospitality management where students learn how to event plan and make travel arrangements. But, to me, hospitality is more than a concierge that can make dinner reservations at a city’s hotspot. It must be more than that: hospitality is measured by the number of smiles and small gestures of welcome shown by a host. Thinking back on my travels, both with and without the Frenchman, over the last year there is one hotel in particular that was truly hospitable, Pensiunea Agroturistica Huta Certeze in Romania’s most traditional region.
My father and I happened upon Pensiunea Agroturistica Huta Certeze completely by chance during our father/daughter motorcycle trip from Prague to Romania and back last June. As the master planner for the trip I had us pushing deep into the northern province of Marmarus, Romania, on our first day in the country. Nature had other plans: nearly as soon as we crossed the border into the European Union’s newest member state, the clouds darkened and rain could be seen on the horizon. Rain is a motorcyclist’s nightmare, thunderstorms even more. Racing against the foreboding clouds we began to search for a hotel to stop for the day. We were hindered by a lack of local language or knowledge of the region, which was nearly completely rural without the familiar trappings of large European highways and their well-developed rest areas and roadside accommodations. Instead, the countryside was dotted with farms and under-development mansions with few shops, restaurants, or hotels to be found.
As the afternoon skies turned black and desperation set in we coaxed the bike up a hill until we reached a sign for a “pensiunea.” The parking lot of the huge building was empty, and dogs ran around outside, barking us down. Hoping for best I scrambled up the stairs and asked the man who greeted us if he had any rooms for the night. We were directed to his English-speaking daughter who assured us rooms were available and – after securing the motorcycle against the coming deluge under some unfinished stairs – ushered us upstairs where we found a clean, comfortable room, basically furnished. From the room’s large balcony we looked out over the valley and towards the dark clouds thankful to have found shelter.
Once we were settled in our rooms we came back downstairs to find a waiting carafe of brandy. One lip-numbing, belly-burning sip was enough for me, but my father quite enjoyed it, sharing many cheers with the owner. Later, while exploring the property, we found the pension’s distillery located in a shed where the air was thick with fermenting fruit in rusted tubs.
Also on the property were countless of pigs and piglets, chickens, and fruit-heavy trees. Piecing together Latin roots and French and Spanish cognates with the Romanian-speaking owner, we learned that the hotel is an agrotourist pension and hosts farm-stays, field trips, and corporate-learning visits from groups and individuals who wish to discover Romania’s traditional agricultural methods. While he tossed handfulls of clover over the back of Georgie, his favorite pig, he explained that everything at the pension is organic and largely self-sufficient, with the pigs, for example, eating a diet of several grains – both raw and in a fermented mash – hand-ground into a fine meal. Next to the loud piglets dozens of chickens and other poultry roamed while the farm’s dogs happily pranced around our feet, begging for a rub. Picking up a woven basket lined with frayed nylon bags, the owner proudly showed off the eggs collected just that morning, their pale colors ranging from blue to white to brown to pink. The next day, the owner’s daughter made our breakfast from these fresh, flavorful eggs.
Later, while discussing the hotels’ many fruit trees, the owner sent a worker high into them on a rickety ladder to pick us a bag overflowing with ripe cherries. Over the next few days I kept my jacket pockets stuffed with them while my cheeks expanded with pits. It turns out that it is a lot easier to get a cherry into a motorcycle helmet than to remove a pit through the mouth/chin guard while wearing thick, skin-protecting gloves.
That evening we feasted on homemade soup, grilled, local, freshwater fish, and chicken cordon bleu, all washed down with more moonshine, while the owner watched a movie and toasted with his buddies who had stopped by for a visit. As the night wore on another family arrived, children in tow, and quickly took a room only to depart before the sun came up the next day. Like us, they were on a roadtrip to somewhere, and Pensiunea Agroturistica Huta Certeze appeared along their route.
The next morning while we were preparing to leave we met the owner as he walked up the driveway in a suit, not the jogging suit he had on the day before, but his Sunday’s best. He had just been to his Catholic church services, he explained. In spite of its many years as a communist state, Romania continues to be one of the world’s most religious countries, with less than 2 percent of the population identifying as anything other than belonging to a Christian-based religion.
The beds at Pensiunea Agroturistica Huta Certeze were not the most comfortable, the wifi not the quickest, the furnishings not the most plush, and the spa nonexistent, but the hospitality was the best: The hotel was authentic, ran by a love-filled family instead of a management team. The food was not cooked by a professional chef, and we were given very few options, but it was local and nourishing. The grounds were not pristine, but the rooms were clean, and the ruralness added to the hotel’s charm. The brandy flowed and language was no impediment. Most certainly the pension had never heard of TripAdvisor or worried about its rating. The hospitality was genuine and ubiquitous.
Ironically, soon after we arrived at Pensiunea Agroturistica Huta Certeze the skies cleared, and the storm passed us over without a drop of rain. It was as if nature itself had lead us to the pension so that we could more fully experience the countryside and the hospitality of the Romanian people.