Sunday, December 05, 2010

At Vlad's Place - Three days in Transylvania

 He looks pretty harmless now, but like Chinggis Khan, Vlad the Impaler's savagery lingers on in the folk memory many centuries after his time

I'm not exactly sure what impelled me to see Transylvania. Maybe it it was all those people, esp. in the U.S.A.  who asked, "Isn't that where Dracula came from?" When I said I was from Tasmania. It was  certainly a place shrouded in mystery and dark legends which no one could tell me much about. I knew I was entering a different world when the train took ten hours to reach it, even though it wasn't a lot further than the journeys I had taken to Vienna and Budapest and there was only one train a day, whereas to the other places there was one at least every hour.

The first surprise when I arrived late at night in Sibiu,  was that the grapes had a perfume -  a deep rich velvety smell that filled the whole night air, like some exotic night blooming flower. I'll blame the Romans for that. After the original population was defeated by the Persians, Julius Caesar, fearing that the state was becoming too powerful made it a province of the Roman Empire in 82 B.C.  Conveniently, it also happened to be rich in gold and silver. However, it was also the first foreign territory to be abandoned by the Empire (in 271 A.D.) because it was too difficult to defend and it was soon over run by Goths, Huns and Bulgars. Nevertheless, many Romans stayed on, strongly influencing the language and culture, so that the main language spoken in Romania is a variant of Latin.

Every house has  grapes. These were at the hostel and they have a most delicious perfume. At one stage Romanians were asked not to grow so much wine, as it made the place too attractive to marauding armies.

The second surprise was that I could actually read the street signs and that the architecture looked a lot like some places in Germany too. I immediately thought of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. In the story, when the townsfolk refused to pay the piper for getting rid of all their rats, he led their children through a cleft in the rock and they were never seen again. It turns out that the real story of how Sibiu came to be called Hermannstadt and to be populated by Saxons, is far more prosiac  but at the same time more complex.
I had never seen these strange dormer windows before that looked like peeping eyes, but the rooflines reminded me of older places in Germany

Between the C9th and the C11th Turkic speaking tribes swept across the Central Asian Steppe - probably Chinngis Khan and friends -but by the C11th, Transylvania became a largely autonomous part of Hungary and it was the Hungarians who invited the Saxons in. Although Transylvania came under the control of the Ottoman Turks in the C15th, it was largely left to its own devices for reasons which will become apparent. (By the way, don't take these potted histories as gospel - usually they are far more complex.  They are just snippets I have gleaned here and there -thanks mostly to Wiki!- to give a general picture of the forces which shaped particular countries). In 1683 The Habsburgs of Austria - Hungary took it back, but after World War I, Romanians declared that they wanted to join with the rest of Romania, although this did not please the many Hungarians who had settled there. They were able to take advantage of the defeat of Germany/ Austria- Hungary in 1947 to achieve their aim.

 Sibiu, World Heritage listed Town

On the first morning I walked around Sibiu which is now World Heritage listed. The restored sections looked stunning, but I must confess to some ambivalence here. The unrestored parts were more atmospheric and you got a more of a sense of what a medieval town was probably like, rather than among the brightly coloured spruced up buildings, though they did look very charming.

 

Walking through the old town - earth colours, the patina of age, crooked cobbled streets

 
   Crossing the lovely little Liar's Bridge, which separated the nobility in the upper town from the merchants in the lower town

 
  The Upper Square has been beautifully restored

 

Heading down to the Market
 
  And down again
 
  The market was a blaze of colour with mountains of glowing capsicums and eggplant and bundles of herbs - these colours were echoed in the colour of the houses that have been painted. They are warm colours like Indian Red, salmon and a hot shade of magneta. Somewhere else they could look out of place, but here they looked fabulous

I bought some cheese here, but after a half a day in my backpack it smelled so embarrassingly strong, that I had to throw it out, lest people thought it was me.  The man at the hostel told me that Vlad actually lived in Sighisoura about three hours away by bus. The trouble was that there weren't many and I didn't have much time to spare. After standing around at the bus stop for a while and seeing local people hitchhiking, I too stuck out my hand. The countryside was very beautiful - green and undulating but tinged with the first touches of autumn, and reminded me very much of home. There were one or two differences though. 
People were still using horses and carts to take in the hay and to carry enormous quantities of wood. They weren't big beasts, certainly not draught horses and usually there would be at least three people sitting on top of the load.  

Horses still clip clop down the road. Usually they were heavily laden

There were also gypsies by the roadside selling copperware and gathering chestnuts. Romania has more gypsies than any other European country, although they are not very popular with the local people. I would have loved to meet them, but my driver Tiberius, wasn't keen to stop. "Be careful of the gypsies, " he said, as so many people had warned me about Romanians.
As we neared Sighisoura the weather became suitably overcast and heavy.


First Glimpses of Vlad's Castle - a moody place with ruins and overcast skies
You also pass by a cemetery near the top, but none of Vlad's victims or Vlad is here. Vlad left all his hanging around on stakes to rot, which so disturbed the Turkish Ottoman  General who had come for another bit of invading, that he gave up the idea and went home feeling quite ill.


You could still see the very thick walls

And torture chambers, though Vlad's preferred method of despatch was impalement


Although Vlad is remembered with awe and fear six centuries after his reign in various years between 1448 and 1476, he is also remembered for protecting Romania from further foreign occupation and ensuring that peace and order prevailed. These were bloody times and Vlad only came to power after his father and older brother were murdered by a rival clan. One of his first acts upon coming to power was to invite all the nobles, the treasonous boyars, to a feast after which he had them impaled, and he was no less cruel to his lesser subjects. It may also be assumed that while the rest of Europe and the Christian Church may not have liked Vlad, they would have been quite pleased to have him as the front line of defence against the Mongols and Turks.

These men played gypsy melodies at the start of a long stairway leading down to the village

This was built in 1642. I only remembered this because it was the year Abel Tasman was out discovering Tasmania

The village is dominated by this Church Tower

Click on this picture to see this amazing clock. The tower also has a multicoloured scalloped roof

The houses here have very thick walls and doors

Behind which there are very pretty courtyards which all have grapes

And sometimes little wine cellars like this
A series of low archways in the city wall led down to the rest of the town

Looking back
It may have been my imagination, but it seemed to me that the townsfolk still lived in fear and looked over their shoulders as they went about their work.

The place where every one goes expecting to see Vlad's Castle is just south west of Brasnov, one of the larger towns. This is a very well preserved mediaeval castle built by the Teutonic Knights in 1212 to protect Brasnov from invasion from the South. Although Vlad was known as Count Dracul (originally meaning Dragon, but later Devil) and was indeed very active in Brasnov and nearby Rasnov, impaling left and right - merchants here mostly (did they sell him shoddy goods?), he did not as far as anyone knows bite people in the neck, drink their blood or live in the famous Bran Castle. The reason it became known as Dracula's Castle and became so popular, is because of  Bram Stoker's book, a book that sold more copies than any other book with the exception of the Bible, and who probably drew inspiration from visiting this place. The story of Vampires is an amalagm of several folk tales in which there is one grain of truth. A woman, not a man did apparently partake of her victim's blood and was walled up alive for her trouble. As I said, these were cruel times.
Coming to the hostel in Brasnov late at night, provided just the right atmosphere for visiting Bran Castle, thought by many (erroneously) to be the home of Dracula

Bran Castle is photogenically perched high on a cliff overlooking the Carpathian Mountains and has walls 3.3m thick

The nice thing about Bran Castle is that it was lived in by members of the Royal Family until quite recently, before being turned into a museum. This means that not only is it very well maintained, but you do get an idea not so much how it would have looked in its day, but how you might do up your next your next draughty castle, should one come your way.

The interior is quite cosy
A sleeping chamber, though I imagine it may have looked a little different when it was a batchelor pad run by armed knights. One of the towers still has 'murder holes' for pouring boiling pitch
Huge ceramic stoves to keep the place warm

Bran Castle is built over many levels
All of them heavily touristed
Often it was a bit of a squeeze on those narrow worn stairways.
Some even lead right down to the parklands around the castle, without having to leave the premises

Strangely, I didn't get that morbid feeling here, that I so often have in mediaeval towns, that the torture chamber and the witch burnings are not far behind. It was light and sunny and I had good lifts all the way there and back , intending to stay in the Sibiu hostel again for an early start back to the Austro - Hungarian Empire in the morning.

I don't even know this couple's names

  David and Sylvia, who not only drove me a long way, but insisted on feeding me as well - Apple Pie and Vegetarian Schnitzel - yum! and probably in that order, with extra to take home. Also something that looked and tasted like crushed biscuits and Nutella. What was that exactly? I am sure my offspring would love it

This was mostly beautiful forested and mountain country - Siebenburgen in German - which means something like seven castles, but  I'm fairly certain there were more as they could be seen on every hill. It has such a romantic ring, though the reality was probably very different.  So much for heading off in the morning. Hans the Dutch hostel owner invited me to come along with him and his friend Susannah, to do a bit more castle viewing, seeing I was so taken with them. It was in the right direction and afterwards I planned to keep going, though I ended up staying another night.

Susannah and Hans took me castle crawling

A lake on the way to Corvinius castle

It's hard to imagine the scale of this enormous castle or the splendid view it gives over the surrounding countryside

 Of course renovations were in progress as they always seem to be with buildings that are several hundred years old, but this castle had everything - flying buttresses, towers, great halls, displays of armour and coats of arms and a massive bridge over what was probably the moat, though it is now only a trickle

Alas, the view now overlooks an industrial site abandoned by the Russians not so long ago.
Since then Romania has been doing it tough as well. Everyone has had to take a 25% pay cut -hard when the average monthly wage is only around 100 EU (about $ 150) and pays 24% GST to pay back European loans. The population has fallen by 2.6 % because so many people are leaving to take up work elsewhere in Europe.

That night, not having the courage to try some of the other local specialities such as the Pie of Innards with Brains - though it looked nice, going by in its little pot with a pastry crust on top, I tried the spicy bean soup which was very similar to Hungarian Goulasch soup except for the beans and the next morning I was on my way.The nice thing about Villa Teillor (info@sibiutravelershostel.com)
where I stayed, was that not only was it the cheapest hostel in town, but that it included breakfast as well.
Then it was off back to Austria, first with Manelo an Italian, next came Bris a Hungarian, who took me almost to the Romanian Border  and then there was Valentin, a Romanian en route to Italy, who took me all the way to Budapest and shared his homegrown feast of chicken, eggs, homemade cheese and a big punnet of strawberries with me. Luckily I still had bread, olives, capsicum and grapes to contribute, so it wasn't all one way. He also insisted on giving me lots of food for the journey. 
There is a very strong tradition of hospitality in Romania, also of families supporting one another and I was sorry to leave.
Valentin (Romanian)
 
 Some of the other Drivers - Correct me f I am wrong - I think this was Manuelo
And this was either Bris (Hungarian) or Sinishara (Serbian) who took me all the way to Passau
Please tell me if I have your names wrong as these photos got a little mixed up.

 I'm also really grateful to the man who picked me up in the dead of night in a really difficult spot just outside Budapest. I didn't get his name or photo, but he saved me from a 15 km walk in the dark.

Thank you everyone for everything! I'd be delighted to say I'm from Transylvania next time I get the chance!


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