When gathering ideas for an autumnal wandering, we stumbled upon the idea of Romania, a picturesque, fairy-tale land of forests, bears, wolves and castles, steeped in history. We have several Romanian pupils at my school and talking to them piqued my curiosity too. Combined with the favourable off-peak flight prices and the availability of great value Airbnb properties, it didn’t disappoint! Despite the horror stories relating to Romanian road users that litter the internet, our choice to hire a car for the week worked out well and meant we could split our time between Sighișoara, Brașov and surrounds, Sibiu and Cluj-Napoca, taking our time and ticking off the majority of Transylvania’s highlights. In reality – according to Dean – so long as you remain alert, you don’t dither and you’re not too perturbed by radical over-taking manoeuvres, driving is actually fine.
Next year marks one hundred years since Transylvania officially became part of Romania at the end of World War I. Prior to this, its history was turbulent, being passed between (among others) Romans, Huns, Bulgarians, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Consequently, and when the rest of the country is considered too, Romania is an ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse nation. The language has prominent ties with Latin and is smattered with recognisable Italian, French and Spanish influences. Although a lot of the towns and cities we saw were indistinguishable from those in other European nations, we were delighted to see some more rural places that held fast to their customs, using horses and carts and dressing in traditional clothing. It is one of the most religious countries in Europe with the majority (around 80%) of people being Orthodox Christians and the rest being almost all Protestant or Catholic.
More recently, in 1947, communists usurped the king and Romania remained under a totalitarian regime until 1989. During the repression, the population suffered immensely, being ruled harshly and falling into poverty. Even now, despite democracy and a growing economy, there remain areas of extreme destitution, with an estimated 25% of the population below the poverty line. Hopefully tourism is becoming a new source of income for the nation.
A particularly interesting period in Transylvania’s history began in the 12th century when organised, efficient German burghers were persuaded into the region – by land and tax incentives – to defend against invaders and to conduct trade. The Germans were also highly-skilled master craftsmen and formed guilds (shoemakers, blacksmiths, butchers, turners, coopers, tinsmiths, tailors, bakers, furriers…) each of which with the responsibility of building and manning a tower in the thick citadel walls to help protect and defend the city. They were wealthy organisations which paid for their own church pews and bestowed status upon their members. Romanians – who were the peasants – and Hungarians were excluded from these medieval Saxon citadels unless they paid to enter and sell their wares. Passing merchants had to stay and trade for three days and were taxed for the privilege. The seven citadels they built are now among Romania’s must-see attractions and, in fact, our first destination, Sighișoara, is a UNESCO World Heritage site as it is an excellent example of a fortified medieval town.
Knowing we would be seeing several similar towns, I’m not sure we fully appreciated the splendour of Sighișoara which, with hindsight, was the most beautiful. Its uneven colourful buildings, cobbled streets and well-preserved guild towers and city walls made you almost feel as though you had stepped back in time.
The Scholar’s Stairway, built in 1642 and illuminated by shafts of early morning light, led up to the imposing Gothic Church on the Hill. It seemed to be monopolised by tour groups so we didn’t get to go in but instead wandered the graveyard for a while.
I loved the scales-like roof of the clock tower and, ascending the building through a creaky museum, we were rewarded with views over the Saxon homes beyond the city walls and the autumnal trees.
Sharing the same square is an unassuming house (the yellow one in the picture before last) which was the birthplace of Vlad Țepeș (a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler) who some say was Bram Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula. Our guidebook promised an unusual experience if we entered and curiosity got the better of us. I remain undecided whether it was worth it! Easy money for the actor who gets to lie down all day and just pops up to make people jump from time to time!
After this, we packed up the car and headed for Brașov with a couple of stops on the way. Whilst in the car, I tried taking pictures out of the window of the varied landscapes and locals we passed, many of which didn’t work out. Here are a few of the better ones!
Our main stop on this route was another UNESCO site, Viscri, one of the seven villages with fortified churches in Transylvania. Blue skies and sunshine had arrived and made the cornflower-coloured houses look even more pleasing. Locals gathered outside to chat, cows roamed freely, horses waited for their carts to be filled and a group of white ducks sheltered from the sun.
The white-washed church itself was my favourite of the trip as it looked almost untouched since its creation in 1724, with its simple pews, original peeling paintwork and precarious balcony.
Its fortification walls were low enough to touch and interrupted by towers from where there were views across farmland and forests.
Another brief stop was at the crater of an extinct volcano, Racos. We climbed through farmland up to its rim then descended a small way inside. In the first photo, the trees you can see on the ground are fully-grown evergreens and it’s possible to see a tiny person among them!
It was a lovely rural area, full of the beauty of autumn.
That was a stray kitten Dean was trying to convince me to give a home to!
After this, as dusk was falling, we drove back down to the nearest village and were met with a marvellous spectacle! A large herd of cows and buffalo were ambling through the streets – stopping the traffic – with their cowherd behind them. So far, not too unusual. But as we inched along behind them, we noticed that, with no instruction from the man, every minute or so, a cow or two or three would peel off and nose at one of the large wooden doors at the front of every house! Seconds later, the gate would be thrown open and in would trot the cows! In some places, the owners lined the streets, waiting for their cows to come home and, where the road forked, larger groups would turn off of their own accord – at one point all the buffalo left together! Clever beasts! I did wonder whether that’s where the saying ‘until the cows come home’ came from!
Our first daytrip destination from Brașov was the medieval Râșnov citadel, which was built upon a hill in the 14th century and is now reached by a little ‘train’ (more like a towed trailer). The promised audio-guide was unavailable so we learnt very little about it. It was mainly the remains of a very small town within thick fortress walls; we saw the foundations of a chapel, apparently 80 homes in various stages of ruin and a few more-intact buildings such as a tiny school house and some towers.
It was an incredibly windy day and, heading up to the look-out point, it was necessary to hold on to the railings with one hand and point the camera with the other!
That same day, we continued on to the famous Bran Castle. The souvenir shops and general tourism setup there would have you believe Vlad the Impaler stayed here and that Bram Stoker was inspired by it but both these are apparently unfounded. It was busy, as you’d imagine.
Instead, the turreted fortress has been turned into a museum displaying artefacts and elegantly-carved furniture relating to a much more recent historical figure: Queen Maria of Romania (granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria). She was given the town of Bran in 1920 in gratitude for the part she played in uniting the country. Whilst, no doubt, the castle has seen some harsh winters, it seemed to be furnished cosily with soft furnishings (including bear skins!); beautifully tiled fireplaces; and tempting nooks and window seats just right for curling up with a book or simply enjoying the views of the surrounding mountains and forests.
At various points around the castle, you step out into a courtyard or onto a balcony where you can admire the tiled roofs and the distant scenery.
That same day, we joined a free walking tour – with Walkabout Tours – around the town of Brașov. Despite it being rather chilly, I really enjoyed learning about the history and some of the more important buildings. The skies change between grey and blue as we revisited some of the locations on another, brighter day. We started at the fountains in Piata Sfatului, the town square – a place for markets, concerts and strikes through the ages except during the communist regime where such gatherings were prevented by turning the area into a carpark! Executions continued though, ending in 1989 at a Christmas Day firing squad execution of the communist leader and his wife.
The council house includes the Trumpeter’s Tower where, even until just a couple of years ago, Hungarian, Romanian and German tunes were performed by three trumpeters. In days gone by, the tunes would change in order to warn people of impending dangers. The statues in front are something to do with the local revolution against the communism although I can’t remember the full story that accompanies them. Brașov’s emblem – the crown set above roots – can be seen on the front of the building.
The imposing Gothic Black Church (Romania’s largest) is an interesting site. Built in between 1385 and 1477, it was severely fire damaged during three long days in 1689 and was thus given its name, despite having been cleansed of its blackness since then. Many believe this was a revenge attack since fires were started in all four corners of the citadel.
It was built a Catholic church – a powerful statement to the region’s nearby Ottoman (Muslim) neighbours. Interestingly it can seat 5000 despite the population at the time being only 2000! To further express its might, the church houses an enormous bell and a 4000 pipe organ too, with 74 registers, only 63 of which can be heard by the human ear. Inside (no photographs allowed), it houses Europe’s largest collection of Muslim prayer rugs, costly gifts donated by passing merchants in thanks to God for their safe passage. The pews were constructed by the different guilds and bear carvings of items associated with their trade. Their positions demonstrate the society’s hierarchy: richer guilds had pews closer to the pulpit and therefore to God. Teachers were somewhere in the middle apparently! There’s also a painting of Mary which, during the fire, reportedly stayed completely intact but for her dress which turned from blue to black – a symbol of her mourning.
The church was converted to a Lutheran one by the influential Johannes Honterus (1498-1549), pictured in statue-form below. He was born in Brașov but, after travelling and studying elsewhere in Europe, returned to his hometown and created the first map of Transylvania, established schools (still in operation today) and built a printing press.
Ecaterina’s Gate, which was once part of the city walls, has turrets on all four corners. This feature – seen again and again in larger citadels – was a reminder to the people of the city’s ability to impose the death penalty. It was handed down for crimes as small as stealing bread or cursing God. During the times when beheading was the method of choice, criminals were given a choice of axe or sword. The poor could only afford a blunt axe whilst noblemen would pay for a sharpened sword.
Southwest of the city, where the Romanians used to have to live, stands St Nicholas’ Cathedral. We didn’t go inside but instead admired the external murals, designed to draw people to the church.
We also experienced a traditional Romanian meal before heading back to our cosy Airbnb apartment.
It was a packed week and I have lots more to share so I’ve decided to split the week in half. More soon including bears and wolves!
Car hire: Klass Wagen £60 for a week – unheard of but completely issue-free!
Flights: Blue Air