Of all places to be listening to John Philip Sousa, a cave in Romania was the last place I would have imagined. With bats. Fluttering around the damp air and hanging from the limestone, the little critters seemed to be enjoying the booming tuba and sharp crack of the snare drums as much as we were. Nature’s powerful forces of erosion had shaped the acoustics of this place. A whim had placed us in the middle of it.
The day before Hisako and I arrived from the northern provincial town of Baia Mare via a micro bus filled with peasants, college students, and one peace corps volunteer. I felt a bit like a VIP considering the amazing hospitality we received from our couch surfing hosts. After a delightful stay in Baia Mare, our host had gone as far as talking to the bus driver and our next host to arrange our point of drop off once we arrived in Timisoara. Sure enough, when the bus pulled into Timisoara, our next host was there hiding behind a beard of dazzling proportions. I thought I was looking at a taller version of Gimli. Hardly surprising that we headed to the mountain caves the next day.
An avid music lover, our host had heard about the concert a few days early and it wouldn’t be his first time to a concert in the mountainside. His attire spoke heavy metal. Late into our first night at his place he backed up my suspicions by breaking out Metallica’s Black Album. On cassette. He and his friend praised Sony’s auto-reverese feature of their boom-box resting on a shelf. The nostalgic sha-chunk of the tape deck’s play button began the blaring guitars and we were off and rocking. Somewhere between auto-reverse number 2 or 3, he brought up the option of going to see a concert the next day. When he mentioned that it would be in a cave, we jumped at the choice.
The next day, four of us (Hisako, me, our host and his friend) piled into a well-loved Yugo. Tucked into the back with Hisako and gouging myself on grilled cheese sandwiches, I watched the countryside go whipping by as the friend drove us further and further away from Timisoara. We scooted across a brand new bridge that arched gracefully over another highway and a second later passed by an old materials factory that was covered in rust and decay. The road gradually got bumpier and started twisting through farmland.
A couple of hours after departure, the car slowed and I saw cars lining the side of the road up ahead. We had arrived. A nondescript village in the middle of nowhere was to serve as our base camp on our venture up into the mountains. Surprisingly, the number of cars lining the road was not small. Many others joined ranks with us as we walked along the road and turned up a dirt road. Young, old, punk rock, classical, rich, and poor all seemed to making their way up the mountain and this is where I got confused.
Given the music we had been listening to with our host to date, I thought for sure we were headed for a rock concert at this point. But as you know, and much to my surprise, it was a concert band performance instead. I was delighted to be going to see a band performance in a cave, but was also slightly disappointed that I wouldn’t be reenacting some wild cave dancing from Zion in the Matrix. All the signs to date had been pointing to rock and roll. Our host had just removed his shirt and was now walking bare chested next to us. Another clue I had thought! Turns out our host is just one of those types of guys that can wear shorts and sandals throughout the winter and to classical music concerts. It baffled and delighted me silly that this guy was taking us to a concert band concert.
30 minutes or so into the hike we came to a steep downward slope, followed by a sharp curve, and then a small incline disappearing right into the mouth of the cave. The several hundred people who had arrived before us had already created a well worn path heading into the cave and it was no easy matter to maintain your balance and keep from slipping. Collision with the person behind you here would have resulted in disaster, toppling people like dominos. Now I was rather happy for the low-key nature of the concert. Alcohol and this slope would not have mixed well. Hang overs wouldn’t have been the only cause of headaches I’m sure.
The mouth of the cave stretched a good 15 meters across and once my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw the interior bending off to the right. The sound of the generators outside the cave died off as we plunged deeper into the cave, our feet making their way through the loose rubble. Floodlights hung from small scaffolding here and there, providing just enough light to make the ground and walls visible but the ceiling fade to black. Inside the cave was huge. Several hundred people crowded into the space in front of us, forming a solid wall that prevented us from getting any close to the action. Far at the other end of the cave I could make out the concert band, large speakers, and what looked like some important looking people.
Shortly after we had settled into our spot amongst the throngs, the band started playing and we swayed, bopped, and shuffled around to the music. A mix of concert band, operatic, and choir music filled the cave for nearly two hours. A few times I thought I recognized the tunes. My mind kept racing back to my days in concert band in Ohio and imagining if we had gone down to Hocking Hills to play trumpets, bass drums, and clarinets among the stalactites. I wonder if dripping moister proves troublesome to the woodwind players. Or guano.
A highlight of the night must have been the opera singer who’s voice seemed to fill every cubic inch of the space. Stalagmites trembled at the high notes and creepy crawlies must have paused during their creeping and crawling to give her a good listen. This was nature’s own Sydney opera house.
All told, the concert lasted about two hours. Towards the end I was about ready to find some place to sit and we made our way back towards the exit. I felt like a bear, waking from hibernation as we neared the exit. I had forgotten that it was still daytime. The slippery, treacherous slope was still there. Back through the woods and stopping in a field for a picnic of more grilled cheese sandwiches, we wrapped up our little adventure.
Back in the car our host popped Metallica back into the cassette player. It wasn’t long before our heads were banging to the music again as we tore across the countryside. But it wasn’t the heavy metal tones that were ringing in my ears and memory for days to come afterwards. Instead, the works of classical composers in the most prehistoric of settings were echoing in my mind.
Behind the Scenes
Apparently, these types of concerts are to uncommon in the area around Timisoara. So if you are in the neighborhood it’s definitely worth checking as to whether or not any concerts might be going on.
For more pictures and good times from our stay in Timisoara, be sure to check out the album.