5 Frames with Kodak Retina Ia crossing the wild Carpathians

Winter of 2005 in Romania. Very cold, but not much snow, in fact less than expected. I was travelling on business, to some destination in the heart of Transylvania, W. of Romania. The train had to negotiate the narrow passes in order to cross the wild Carpathian mountains. Not an easy route, because the tracks are skimming the forests on each side of the railcar, the precipices are very often frightening to look at. A really interesting experience, to tell you the truth. Small train stations, some very old, like 80 yrs old or more. The railroad is quite all right, cars as well, but the train runs slower than usual, up in the mountains. The engine (or engines, for sometimes the train needs two, depending on the weather and the steepness of the climb) and cars are not state of the art, but they are comfortable and one can feel the safety is well taken into consideration.

The tracks are unbelievably turning and twisting, in a series of almost u-bends, for most of the journey. That is why it takes quite a long time to travel this portion of the railroad. At times, you can photograph the engine or the last carriage, that’s how bendy the road is. There are no tunnels, so the tracks are laid right on the top of the ridges, going down in the ravines and hollows, rising up again on the side of the mountains. It feels like one is in a montagne-russe sort of thing, what with the sudden twists and turns of the tracks. And everywhere a nature that is decidedly sleeping, with no sign of activity whatsoever. Everything stands still, all is quiet. The mountain is asleep too, but do not let this fool you; the weather can change without warning, I was told. A sunny day can turn in a sudden blizzard, so word to the wise: do not go climbing mountains here, unless you are prepared and know well what you’re doing.

As you are approaching the stations, small and somewhat far in-between, the tracks sometimes take you near the local inhabited places. You can see these (mostly rural) communities hunched down in the snow, the smoke rising from their chimneys, a sign that the people have retired in their homes to winter it out. Sometimes the tracks are just clipping the outskirts of small towns, and you can get a glimpse into how they look like, but only just. Wild nature everywhere, with the odd derelict building here and there, signs that this country is recovering from a painful period in its history.

Kodak Retina 1a performed admirably, although I had to pass a photo or two, when in the crisp air outside; the bellows are not exactly ecstatic to be unfolded at temperatures well below zero. The film was Konica Monochrome VX400, the only one available in my bag at the time, and a good job it did, considering.

These are scanned prints. Some of them pictures were shot through the thick glass of the car window, which distorted (more or less) the images. It can easily be noticed in many of the frames.

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18 thoughts on “5 Frames with Kodak Retina Ia crossing the wild Carpathians”

  1. Your description alone makes me want to travel on these trains. The photographs are pretty evocative too. Fairly sure Bela Lugosi is lingering, somewhere just out of shot, in at least one of them.

  2. Daniel Castelli

    From your vivid descriptions of the train journey, and the tinted monoxhrome images, I’m reminded of “Murder on the Orient Express.”
    This is what good travel writing & photography are supposed to do, fire up your imagination.
    Well done.

    1. Mike, thank you. I would say that a good start would be the train that links Bacau to Targu Mures. This train will run exactly on the route my story talk about. Have fun 🙂

      Best of,


  3. Peter Roberts

    What a wonderful travelogue you’ve put together Julian.
    The sepia images have a period feel to them and and evoke the spirit of R. L. Stevenson’s line “Each a glimpse and gone forever”.


    Dear Julian,
    I can’t help but be reminded of “Murder on the Orient Express.” Your travel narrative, coupled with the antique tone of your photographs, conjures up a little man with perfect moustaches and an egg-shaped head.
    This is what good travel writing & photography (or artist’s sketches) should do. Fire-up our imagination and make people want to experience this themselves.
    Well done on all levels.

  5. Alasdair Mackintosh

    Nice vintage look. If you’d told me that these were some old family photographs from the 1950s I would have believed you 😉 (And I mean this as praise.)


    Dear Julian,
    Perhaps the third try is charmed (my 3rd attempt to send this…computer is acting wonky.)
    Your post combines great travel writing and good pics from a classic camera. I can’t help thinking this reminds me of Murder on the Orient Express. Did you see a small precise man with moustaches and an egg-shaped head riding the train?
    This is what a travel piece should do. Fire up our imagination and make us want to visit the region.
    Thank you for a wonderful narrative and antiqued looking photos.

    1. Why, of course; I was personally introduced to Monsieur Poirot, a most distinguished gentleman with a brilliant mind. He was quite taken with my explanation of how I found who killed the poor victim: it was the butler who did it, obviously !

      Glad to have herd from you, Daniel !

  7. I also own a Voightlander Vitomatic. Fun camera that takes me back to photo basics everytime I use it. The build quality is amazing. Thanks for sharing this story. I am inspired to take mine out for a shoot.

  8. I own several Kodak Retina’s 1a, IIIc, IIIC, 1b and the IB. These are fantastic cameras. Well engineered and still working 60
    year on. Some I have stripped, cleaned and lubricated. People love these camera and alway want to start a conversation when I am out and about with them.

  9. Nathan Eaton Jr

    Sounds like a wonderful trip, Julian… thanks for sharing.

    I particularly enjoyed this piece as I own a Retina 1a that was my father’s. At 90, he still talks about his time in Japan before I was born and he has some wonderful slides taken there with the Retina and other cameras that he loves to share with us.

    I have been busy working on restoring and shooting other cameras passed down from family members, lately a set of Brownies, so the Retina has been sitting on the shelf for years. You’ve inspired me to get it down, get the shutter mechanism working properly again and get out to shoot with it. Thanks.

    1. Nathan, glad to hear that Retina is a fond memory of yours. It deserves to be put right and cherished, a wonderful piece of technology. Hope you’ll find time to take it for a walk !

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