Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

transylvania - the light and dark of it

The five of us were strolling along a narrow, cobble-stoned lane, my camera's shutter emitting morse code-like sounds as I tried to document all I was seeing. We were on a hilltop, amongst the still-mighty remnants of a former fortress.


Within the stone wall, putting up with the herds of visitors, were cheery-hued, 13th century houses leaning into each other as if giving encouragement to withstand still another 100 years of tourists.


In every direction from the main square narrow lanes splintered off, displaying whitewashed buildings in soft pastels which now housed cafés with outdoor terraces and shops displaying traditional pottery and clothing. Geranium baskets overflowed from window sills and laced curtains peeked out to say hello.


All of a sudden, a sign on the mustard-coloured facade of the corner house. "Between 1431-1436 residence of Vlad Dracu, member of Dragon Order. Vlad Tepes Draculea was born here 1431." This is where Dracula was born!


We are in Sighisoara, the heart of Transylvania, visiting our friend The Romanian. He and his family having been spoiling us with traditional food (like Samal - meat filled cabbage rolls, and Mamaliga - a cheese & rice porridge. So delicious!), impressive sights and good clean fun - ping pong anyone?


For the first couple of days in Romania, The Romanian tried to take us to all of the various Dracula castles which have been built to entertain tourists. I resisted. I had no interest in visiting 'fake' places built around an imaginary character in a novel. To my shame, I had not done any research beforehand.


So there we stood looking at the house where the evil warlord, Vlad Draculea, was born. It turns out that he was a member of a voivod, which translates into a dukedom or princedom, but in the Middle Ages was less Disney and more warrior. Draculea grew into a cruel leader, so evil in his warlordy-ness that legend spread all the way to England, where Bram Stoker first heard of his soon-to-be muse; less Cara Delevingne more Hannibal Lector.

The stories vary, and of course, Stoker's version has faded reality even further, but if even half of the reports are true, then Vlad Draculea was one heck of a scary person...no Robert Pattinson-type vampire. Roasting children, drinking the blood of his impaled victims (his murder technique of choice), slicing the breasts off the wives of his enemies and forcing the men to eat them. Honestly, just writing about it is making me ill.

Much of what I've learned about Romania is dark. Not just war and conflict, a shared history which has painted all of Europe many shades of grey; its borders changing shape as quickly as if a child was etch-a-sketching them.


But as I snapped photos of people, place and thing, I began to notice a sadness, which wasn't evident to me at first. Call it naívete (you'd have every right to), but at first I was charmed by Transylvania. The rolling hills, with nary a house or building, reminded me of the Canadian foothills. Along the streets, around every corner we zoomed was a horse or donkey-drawn cart piled high with hay or wood or family. The horses I saw were all lovely and strong, shiny with sweat.


The charismatic Saxon villages we drove through, which are sprinkled throughout Transylvania, were lined with faded houses, once upon a time whitewashed in shades of blues, pinks and yellows; the paint now crumbling, shutters hanging by too few hinges, each house with an attached stable hanging on as if for dear life.



Chickens and goats stand around in dirt-filled yards, cows wander beside the road eking out a grassy meal, innumerable dogs lie curled up on gravel roads, and benches sit waiting outside of every front gate waiting for someone to spend a moment or two with them.


It felt fairytale-ish at first, as if we were moving through the stage of a play set a hundred years back. Until I knocked some sense into myself and realized that this is the real, hard life for actually the better-half of Romanians. And outside of the cities, the many weather-beaten, worn-out, resigned-looking, young and old faces we saw atop horse-drawn carts with haybales the size of a VW bus, or sellling corn on the corb or buckets of blueberries at railcrossings where cars need to slow down or stop...these are the Roma.


What this group of people have endured in the 1500 years since leaving northern India, is nothing short of a absolute human abomination. Nowhere on the planet, throughout all of these many years, have this group of people found home; a place where they can belong, where they can be. Nobody wants them. Nobody has ever wanted them. From Brazil to Budapest, the Roma people have endured the most appalling situations: enslavery, mass discrimination poverty, forced sterilization (this alone until 1973!). Of course, centuries of this kind of treatment has created patterns of behaviour, fueled stereotypes and forced opportunistic lifestyles, which in my opinion, just enables an utter tragedy. How can humankind treat each other this way, when not a single one of us has earned the place and people we were born into?

Roma pots for sale
These are some of the thoughts that sloshed about my mind as I, myself, was being jostled around in the backseat of the car on our windy way towards the Carpathian Mountains. While rain settled in for what we thought would be the day, our group soaked up the mountain-top air, spied on shepherds with their flocks of sheep and imagined wintry, aprés-ski goodtimes.


Nestled into the armpit of the Carpathians is the winter resort town of Sinaia. Here, Romania's first king built his humble hunting cabin, the spectacular Peles Castle. King Carol I, along with its German architect, built this Renaissance dream, Versailles' alpine cousin, in 1873.


Costing today's equivalent of US $120 million to build, the queen wrote of the diverse group of labourers, "...you could see the hundreds of national costumes and fourteen languages in which they spoke, sang, cursed and quarreled in all dialects and tones, a joyful mix of men, horses, cart oxen and domestic buffaloes."


Along with many Romanians, both King Carol and Queen Elizabeth of Romania were of German descent. Throughout Transylvania, you can see the Saxon mark on building design, cathedral bell towers, and street names.


But walking through the cities, it is also clear that a more recent influence has left a heavy toll. Ceausescu's reign of strict, brutal communism included years of extreme food shortages and very limited personal freedom for Romania's people. The sinister stone or barb-wired fences which uniformly seperated every city house pop up around corners as a reminder of 24 years of cruelty.


And then brightness again, as we turn another corner and see colourful artwork in Bistrita's city centre. Much has changed throughout Europe and here, since 1989. As the Iron Curtain came crumbling down, Romania was the last Eastern country to charge through it. And with entry into the EU in 2007 came an influx of money, evident in new and improved roads, fresh-painted facades and restored town squares and historical monuments.


Transylvania is a truly interesting place...I will be back. And next time, I will see less sights and more people - every country's greatest resource.

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