If Romania were a peasant’s shirt, then Oltenia would be a thick belt embroidered in vivid colors slung round the middle.
Oltenia doesn’t actually straddle Romania’s southern flank but it still feels like the country’s southern belt.
Neighboring Muntenia, Romania’s largest region, is a mishmash of people who moved from elsewhere and there is less regional identity and pride.
Oltenia is brash, confident and seeks the limelight. It gave the world sculptor Constantin Brancusi and Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu.
Oltenians consider themselves proud, ambitious…. and cunning. Frankly, they can be a bit boastful, but more on that later. They are descendants of the Roman and Dacian tribes that lived here centuries ago.
They take themselves seriously, but other than that, they look on the bright side, and enjoy parties, song and cooking dishes with leek. Not for them the Transylvanian sober and measured outlook on life.
Oltenia has extremes, stretching from the shadow of the snowy Transylvanian peaks down to the marshy flatlands of the Danube in the south. It has Horezu whose ceramics are in UNESCO’s immaterial cultural patrimony, and Caracal, known for its crime gangs, in the deep south. Villages have lyrical names such as “Little prune” (Prunisor) and „The money meadow.” (Lunca Banului).
One recent winter day, I drove straight through the middle of Oltenia motoring into Slatina (some handsome old buildings, better than the dump I was expecting) on the banks of the the mighty Olt, Romana’s biggest internal river. I passed through Craiova, Romania’s largest southern city where Ford has a manufacturing plant, and on to Strehaia, aka Leo land, the birthplace of Gypsy pop artist simply known as Leo from Strehaia. He was convicted of petrol smuggling and is currently serving a prison sentence for tax evasion.
I drove through snowy villages dotted with gaudy, outsize villas and giant crosses.
Oltenian radio stations didn’t disappoint. There were Gypsy pop songs bursting with cheerful melodies about love and everything else. “Ionele, Ionele” a famous folk song and a recent melody about taxes “Taxe si impozite” gave atmosphere to the drive.
Oltenia is a place of song and frivolity. Its fame and personality go beyond its mere geographical size. Oltenia punches above its weight.
As well as renowned sculptor Brancusi who was born in Horezu, Eugene Ionesco, father of the theater of the absurd was born in the underrated town of Slatina. Ecaterina Teodoroiu, the brave warrior of World War I who has just become the first woman to appear on a Romanian banknote is an ‘olteanca’ too.
Less known, but no less illustrious was George (Gogu) Constantinescu, a scientist and inventor of worldwide acclaim who was the first person to use reinforced concrete in Romania. (Constanta Casino, Athenee Palace Hotel and the Grand Mosque in Constanta.)
Contemporary painter Sabin Balasa “the master of cosmic romanticism” (self-described) was born in an Oltenian village, as was late Romanian poet Marin Sorescu.
The world’s longest-serving central bank governor Mugur Isarescu is an Oltenian and produces upmarket Oltenian wines when he’s not on bank duty. So is Victor Piturca, the gruff striker who was Romania’s football manager for a long time.
Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, the last European leader to be executed, was an Oltenian too.
If Slatina was prettier than expected, Ceausescu’s birthplace of Scornicesti farther west was underwhelming. It’s a scruffy village on the edge of Oltenia, worth a visit only to see where the dictator grew up.
Next time, I’ll stay longer. Oltenia, seems like the kind of kind of place where they cheer you up with a song, a joke, a glass of wine or plum brandy, and a steaming bowl of chicken soup which was running around the yard in the morning.
Of course they think everything they do is the best.
Here are some classic Oltenian lyrics from Tudor Gheorghe’s Oltenian song (posted above.)
Mother, we are a nation,
Like a leaf shining on a branch.
See how the sky burns bright,
We gave it our jewels.
For the evenings to shine,
We gave it the Oltenian blouse.
There’s not a lot of self-doubt in this part of Romania.