The Birthplace of Dracula

After another delicious breakfast, we bid Ramona goodbye as it is time to move on to the next town.  On the way out of Maramures, we stop at another local market.  This time, I am excited to disembark from our van to check them out.  Fresh cheeses, speck and plums greet us in the entranceway.  But there’s all sorts of fruits and vegetables to be had, as well as clothes, shoes and socks like the market of yesterday.  It’s fascinating just to see the locals interacting with each other.  They don’t pay us much attention, but one of the ladies tells Marco (who I probably forgot to mention speaks Romanian despite his Netherlands heritage – and of course he lives here) that she is happy to see foreigners walking their markets.

Then on we drive to Sighisoara, almost five hours away.

Our driver, is a busy man.  He is constantly on the phone.  In fact, as well as driving us around, he is running three businesses at the same time – two accommodation facilities and an import/export business.  I’m glad to be sitting in the back of the van, as I’m spared the horror of watching him, talk, drive and write notes all at the same time.

Marco has a special surprise for us today – for lunch, we are eating at – ta da da da – Kaufland!  Noticing our mouthwatering efforts of yesterday, Marco has decided to let us check out the Kaufland grill.  Yay!  Unlike Bunnings, you get more than just a sausage in a bun here at Kaufland.  You have a choice of several grill dishes, either sausages or kofta like grilled meats.  And as our tastebuds alluded to yesterday, they are pretty damn tasty.  Those who don’t partake of the grill wander around to find something else in the supermarket giant.

Outside the grill, a small group of ‘gypsy’ children are milling around, hands shyly stretched out for some coins or a lucky note.  One of our American’s (let’s call him American Dad), pulls out a fiver and hands it over.  Bad move.  More children quickly close in and I’m guessing that American Dad didn’t read the notes about not giving money to anyone deemed to be begging.  He quickly realises his mistake.

At this point, I should probably talk a little more about the ‘gypsies’.  More correctly known as the Roma or Romani (the term ‘gypsy’ is incredibly derogatory), they were thought to have descended from several low north-Indian castes somewhere between the ninth and fourteenth centuries, appearing in Romanian history for the first time in around the mid 1200’s with the invasion of the Mongols (or Tatars).  They were a nomadic people and, in the early days at least, were a welcome source of skilled labour.  They had been craftsmen since ancient times, though with a preference for blacksmithing, they were skilled in everything from locksmithing, to knife/sword making and gold/coppersmithing, and through to pottery, cobblering and stonework.

That was until the Industrial Revolution came along and stripped them of their traditional means of earning a living.  At this point, they became entertainers, telling fortunes, playing music and putting on horse and dancing bear shows.  Many would say, they also became outlaws (hence the saying ‘you’ve been gypped‘).

The Roma continued to suffer persecution, being stripped of their citizenship by the Nazi’s in the 1930’s and added to Hitler’s list of ethnic groups to be dealt with, along with the Jews and Poles.  After the war, Communist governments tried to force the Roma to assimilate into society but instead of creative a cohesive society, it stripped them of any remaining time-honoured values and shattered their once tight social structure.  The end of communism led to massive unemployment in the Roma population.

It’s estimated there are about twelve million Roma worldwide, but this can’t be verified as many Roma hide their identities in government records such as census documents.

(P.S.  If you are interested in learning more about the history of the Roma in Romania, click here to read this fascinating document written by Viorel Achim titled The Roma in Romanian History).

Back in the van and on the road again.

Finally, we arrive in Sighisoara – birthplace of Dracula (or probably more correctly Vlad Tepes).  Everyone knows the name Dracula.  Sure it’s a made up fairy tale.  But did you know that it was based in actual history?  I didn’t know much about the story, real or otherwise, so I went a bit Dracula mad in my quest to find out more.

I looked to You Tube and Kasabian’s tune Vlad the Impaler, starring none other than Noel Fielding, but how much impaling could you really do with this big old thing?

I read Bram Stoker’s elegantly bound copy of Dracula, and apart from being overwhelmed by a language so old it took most of my effort to relate it to modern day conversation, it left me lost.  And in any case, Bram had not only ever been to Transylvania, but his story was a bit, well, lost in translation.

And then, I found this movie – Dracula Untold, with the delightful Welsh actor, Luke Evans, and it all made a little bit more sense.  Or maybe I was just a little starstruck.

So I think I am now fully up to date and ready to delve into Sighisoara.  Sighisoara is a medieval town in the magical region of Transylvania – that place of haunted castles, gothic churches, werewolves and of course, Vampires.  It’s the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler.  Born Vled Tepes III, the Prince of Wallachia, a member of the House of Draculesti.  The town was first settled by the Romans but flourished under the Saxons since the 12th century.

Our hotel is right on the main square, which is currently set up for a concert.  Marco takes us on a quick guide of Sighisoara’s old town, pointing out a few sights and interesting things we might like to check out during the rest of the afternoon.

Markets are set up around the streets leading away from the square with all sorts of products for sale.  There are Dracula swords…

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you can visit the room Dracula was born in…(well apparently the site where he was born in 1431 and lived until his was four years old)…

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buy a passport or some Dracula currency….

or you could be lucky enough to even spot Vlad Tepes walking around town….

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Behind the Church of the Dominican Monastery is a statue of Vlad with what Lonely Planet describes as ‘his trademark circa-1981 porno moustache’:

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There are a few other thing to do in Sighisoara of course – and one of those is to check out the colourful street markets.  Here, you can buy local snacks, flower headbands, peasant shirts, candles and of course, Dracula souvenirs.

The concert that is set up in the main square is an ethnic minority concert showcasing traditional Polish, Czech, Romanian and Croatian (for a start) songs and dance.  There are tents set up on the side of the stage with tables and benches for concert goers to sit and relax with a beer while watching the show.  A small group of local kids take hands and dance to the music in front of the stage.

A nice way to end the day.

Woolly Vests, Wooden Churches and Elie Wiesel

We are staying at Pensiunea Ardelean in Vadu Izei, the first of several homestays on our itinerary for the next few weeks.  I think there were a few of us that were a little bit anxious about what that would mean, but in this case at least, we shouldn’t have been.  It’s a great big house with a kitchen and big dining area.  Out the back there’s a large deck overlooking, well, this…

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Above the entry hall and up a set of stairs are the majority of bedrooms, which sprout off an octagonal shaped hallway.  Each bedroom is roomy, with it’s own bathroom, and decorated in a charming traditional, rural way.  And from my room at least, there is a doorway opening out onto a small balcony which overlooks the same glorious view as downstairs, albeit from a bit higher up.

Downstairs below the dining room, are a couple more bedrooms.  This is also where Ramona (our host) and her family live.  The house is large and airy, simply but beautifully decorated and you couldn’t ask for a nicer setting.

And boy, can Ramona cook.  Breakfast is quite the spread – from simple homemade jams to baby tomatoes handpicked from the backyard, to local cheeses and meats and then this most magnificent kind of frittata.  She catered for everyone’s needs – we had a vegetarian, and a gluten intolerant amongst us, but this was no problem – variations were promptly bought out of the kitchen to accommodate.  We were certainly not going hungry today.

Vadu Izei is a small commune within the Maramures region of Romania.  A commune is a rural subdivision of a country and there are 2,686 of them in Romania.  The population of Vadu Izei is less than 3,000 people and it is located close to the border of the Ukraine.  How close?  Well the Ukranian town of Bila Tservkva is about 700km away by car.  So, close enough.  If you’ve been living under a rock, my intrepidation about being anywhere near the Ukraine is due to the war that has been raging there for the last year and a half.  Fighting started in April 2014 when pro-Russian activists seized control of government buildings across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but I can’t begin to explain the ins and outs of the conflict, so I’ll defer to Associate Director of the Harvard Ukranian Institute – Lubomyr Hajda, who says this:

“It began when the Ukrainian government decided not to sign the agreement with the European Union back in the fall of 2013. This was not just a trade agreement, but also a political agreement that committed Ukraine to adhere to certain European values and principles.

From there the crisis moved very quickly to corruption and regime change. The demonstrations happened in waves, and started primarily in Kiev. Most of the protestors were students and young people, although other regions were represented as well.

For these protestors, it was an opportunity to fight corruption.”

Over 6,000 have died to date and Ukrainian towns have been left decimated and desolate.  Another casualty was the ill-fated flight MH17, which was shot down over the Donetsk region of the Ukraine – to this day we are still not sure by who.

So it’s just something in the back of your mind given it’s coverage by news channels over the last year and a half.

Our driver for the next few days has arrived and we are off to explore the region of Maramures.  It’s a land that seems frozen in time, a region rooted in tradition, customs, folklore and ancient superstitions.

We also have a local guide for the day, Nicolai – a tall man with beautifully friendly brown eyes and it’s clear he is eager to have us fall in love with  Maramures.  Marco tells us our first stop is a local market.  I groan inside, how boring.  A market.  Let’s get on with the sightseeing!  I don’t have any other option so I’ll have to suck it up.

The small town slowly flashes before our eyes as we get our first real glimpses of Romania.  Quaint little houses give way to apartments as we edge closer to the ‘city’ area where the market is held.  Along the way, we pass by a local policeman that has pulled someone over.

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It appears they are gypsies and Marco tells us the policeman thought that they had stolen something from the markets we are about to arrive at.  I have to laugh at this sight – it’s something so unfamiliar to me.  Where am I?  It’s almost like we have stepped back in time.  The local ladies are all attired in full skirts with long sleeved jumpers, scarves tied under their necks.  The gentlemen all have these tiny little hats on their heads.  Nikolai tells us that each village has its own colours for its outfits and their own style of hats made out of felt or straw.

Our van meanders through the streets, around small crowds of locals heading to the market.  We park up the van, proceeding on foot, following behind the locals, who have undoubtedly noticed this small mob of intruders.

On one side of the road there are animals for sale, sheep and pigs and the like, some looking a little worse for wear.  Marco asks how much for the sheep?  700 lev, the farmer replies.  There are all manner of bits and pieces that would belong in a blokes garage or farm shed – belts, bolts and other things I have no idea of the use of.  There’s also a truck selling headstones for those who’d like to plan ahead.  On the other side of the road is what appears to be the ladies market – brightly coloured skirts and scarves, blouses, sensible and comfortable underwear and stockings line the gravel lot.  There are also carpets and bales of wool.  And the food section – local fruits, vegetables and cheeses.

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The markets are actually an eye opening introduction into the way of life here, and I’m starting to appreciate exactly why Marco bought us here.

Nikolai has bought a local snack and offers each of us to tear off a piece to try.  It’s a dough pastry that has a slightly salty, perhaps cheese threaded taste to it, and it’s quite good.

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Maramures is also famous for its World Heritage-listed wooden churches.  The one we are visiting today is the Church of Saint Nicholas in the commune of Budesti.  It’s one of eight wooden churches that have been UNESCO World Heritage listed.  The Church of Saint Nicholas was built in 1718.

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Inside the church, the walls are covered with elaborate paintings of religious scenes.  The wooden eaves and doorways of the building are intricately carved.  Beautiful bright tapestries and carpets adorn the room, giving it a cheerful disposition.

Outside is the commune graveyard, where goats nibble on grasses amongst the fruit trees and elaborate gravestones.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen goats gracing a graveyard with their presence!

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The homes and streets surrounding the church are also elaborately carved with massive wooden gates announcing the front of each.

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Down the road, we stop at a little distillery.  Marco wants to introduce us to it’s owner but he is not around today because there is not enough fruit to distill at present, so we help ourselves to a private viewing.

Next door is this little wool processing shed.  Nikolai tells us how the wool is washed and dyed before being made into local products.

And the end result?  This man’s gorgeous woolly vest!

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Maramures region is a photographer’s delight.  There is just something gorgeous to capture with your lens everywhere you turn – little snippets of life which are ordinary to those living them, but somehow extraordinary to those of us who live a world away in a life overtaken by technology and the loss of the majority of our traditions and ways.

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Our next stop is the Merry Cemetery, or Cimitirul Vessel, in Sapanta.  It’s a unique cemetery where each grave is marked with a bright blue, beautifully carved wooden cross, decorated with a painting and an original poem that tells a little bit about the life and death of the person buried underneath it.  The cemetery’s tradition began back in the 1930’s by Ioan Stan Patras, who carved these crosses until his death in 1977.  The cemetery contains about 700 graves and the tradition has continued on through Ioan’s apprentice Dumitru Pop.

The cemetery’s church is currently being renovated (without any of the care for safety precautions that would shut down an Australian worksite in seconds) so we can’t see it’s true beauty, but wandering around it, from what you can see, it must be stunning.

Our van travels along the road, slightly slowing as we get to this point.  Not really an interesting bridge.  Except that, as Marco points out, the Ukraine is just over there – that’d be about 40km away.

DSC05005A windy ride away, is our next stop, the Barsana Monastery, a wooden monastery built in 1720.  Full of colourful flowerbeds and intricate wooden buildings, the grounds are simply stunning and worth the look around.  Whilst it is free to visit, there is a charge if you want to take photos.

A bit further down the road, someone in the van asks about the pots by the side of the road.  Marco asks the driver to pull over and he and Nikolai explain the meaning behind the pots.  These pot trees are created out the front of any home in which there is a woman looking to be married – all the single ladies, all the single ladies!  Once they are betrothed, the pots are removed from the tree and hung along the front of the house instead.

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Romania’s Jewish heritage harks back to the those Jews that were part of the Roman invasion of the Dacians in 101 AD.  They began setting in various regions of Romania’ during the Middle Ages and continued to arrive in the 15th and 16th centuries, escaping Cossack uprisings in Poland and the Ukraine.  Perhaps the most famous of Romania’s Jews, is a man called Elie Wiesel – winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize.  The town of Sighet is host to the Elie Wiesel Memorial House which is dedicated to the memory of Jewish Holocaust Victims and the Jewish way of life in Sighet prior to WWII.  Elie is the author of over 40 books on the subject.  He was born in Sighet in 1928.  At the age of 15, he and his family (along with the rest of Sighet’s Jewish population) was moved into one of two ghettos before being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  He survived and went on to become one of the world’s best known humanitarian activitists.  Amongst his most famous works is his trilogy Night, Dawn and Day, which tells the horrific story of the Holocaust through his eyes.

We drive through the streets of Sighet towards home.

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There’s one last stop before heading back to Ramona’s – Marco wants to show us Kaufland.  Kaufland is a massive German hypermarket (part of the same chain that also owns Lidl it operates over 1,000 stores in Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia) and it’s full of EVERYTHING, with a Bunning’s style grill out the front (which smells amazing by the way).  We wander the aisles stocking up on snacks and wine and beer and whatever else takes our fancy and then load ourselves back into the van, whistfully stealing glances at the grill.

As we drive down the streets towards Ramona’s, we note that the locals are appearing outside, taking up residence at their front gates, or seated on one of the benches that is situated outside the front of each house.  There’s not a single iPad, or iPhone or electronic device of any kind in sight – people are actually talking to each other!  It’s sweet.

Despite my earlier misgivings, today has been such an interesting day opening up the door to Romania so we could peek inside and see what she is all about.  I’ve really enjoyed this change in pace and am eager to see whatever lays in our path from today forward.  We have the rest of the week in Romania, travelling from here, down through the countryside to it’s capital, Bucharest, so we will be seeing a whole lot more of this interesting country.

And hopefully, the food will be as amazing as Ramona’s – our last meal again simple but awesome – soup, schnitzel, chops and potatoes…she even had lamingtons for dessert!

After dinner, we urged Ramona to come and sit with us so we could have a chat to her.  Although we have no shortage of alcohol today, Ramona brings out some of her own homemade wine, which is amazing and very quickly disappears.  She tells us about her life, how she came to run Ardelean and her family.  At this point, her ‘kinder surprise’ (her unplanned youngest son) toddles out to sit on his mum’s lap before bedtime.  We ask where she learnt to cook at which she laughs – she was never a very good cook and had to ring her Mum to ask a myriad of questions when she was first married.  Her husband always used to say his mother’s cooking was the best, but these days his alliances have changed – and quite fittingly so!

Trams, Trains, Buses and Cars

Today is set to be a long day of travel.  L O N G.

From Eger, we board a local bus to Debrecen two and a half hours away.  Debrecen is Hungary’s second largest city.  After spending a couple of hours to stop for lunch and stock up on snacks, we hop aboard the train into Romania.  The carriages are quite comfortable for the journey.  The most valuable thing in my luggage at this point of the trip is my IPOD.  I could not have done without it today, the way it simply turned hours and hours into minutes and a good nap.  #travellersbestfriend.

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Arriving into Romania, we pull alongside another train.  Heads hanging out the window of our train, and noticing the shattered glass in the windows (bullet holes?), it’s at this point we realise how close we are to the Ukraine.  At the border, the Hungarian guards grumpily stamp us out of their country, while the Romanian guards cheerfully welcome us on in with big smiles and a happy voice while they stamp us into their country.  Not what I was expecting for some reason.  Though to be honest, I have no idea what to expect of Romania full stop.  I mean, I have some pre-conceived notions, no doubt obtained from the media over the years – and probably not an altogether bright picture.  But I’ll keep it to myself and see what unfolds.  Especially seeing as this is now Marco’s country and he is clearly excited to show it to us.

At the end of the train ride, it’s another two and a half hours by private minivan transport to a town called Vadu Izei in the Maramures region of Romania.  We drive up into, down around and through the Carpathian mountains, all the time the sky darkening around us.  Images of wolves and Dracula come to mind – yes really.  It seems we are driving forever before we finally arrive in Vadu Izei, greated by our host for the next couple of days, Ramona.

It’s been such a long (and boring) day so I am hitting the hay to wake up fresh and early because I can’t wait til tomorrow to see where it is we have ended up!