When the Cows Come Home

Before we leave Sighisoara, there’s time this morning to explore a little bit outside the old town.  Marco takes us on a walk to the local markets, as has become our custom in these Romanian towns, guiding us through the streets with his long tall-Dutchman sized steps, his trail of merry travellers always a few steps behind.

We pass by locals fishing, cycling and sleeping, beating their rugs clean, attending christenings and just doing what locals do.  There’s a small graveyard for unknown soldiers, a dead rat in the river, a plaque marking the height of a flood against a pale pink building, and Romania’s favourite car – the Dacia – lining the curbside.

These markets are not dissimilar to those we’ve already seen, though the mix of locals is perhaps a little more diverse and there is more produce than clothing here.  I become the proud new owner of a locally made straw hat.

Admiring my new hat
Admiring my new hat
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It’s clear you have to be careful where you park your horse and cart these days!

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We return to the old town where we board our bus to the next town, which is only a short half hour (roughly 40km) drive away – Viscri.

The landscape becomes incredibly rural with little farm houses appearing by the roadside, the paved road giving way to a gravel road once we arrive in Viscri proper.  It’s one of the only Saxon villages remaining in the Transylvanian part of Romania, and although it was never a big town, there are only about 500 inhabitants here now.  There are animals roaming the streets all over, a little dog lays across a park bench watching us go by.

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We have another homestay tonight, and once more we are split up into groups for our lodgings.  Our host is Walter and his homes for us are deliciously rustic.  The home I am sharing consists of a large gated courtyard with a main house off to the left and another building to the right – the one I am staying in.  There are also sheds for ‘our sheep’, but they aren’t home at the moment – I guess we’ll meet them later.

We don’t have much time to settle in because Marco wants to show us the 12th century Saxon Church, which is the centre piece of Viscri.  The UNESCO World Heritage listed church was a Romanesque Chapel with a fortified level above, part of which now forms a museum to show you just how the Saxons survived attack.    The chapel was destroyed by the Tatars in 1241, but the Saxons were not to be deterred and built a new church, which is the one still standing today.  In the 16th century, the church was fortified to six levels with a defence tower so the Saxons could fight against Turkish invaders.  Each household had a garret in which their supplies were held for when they were required to fight.

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It’s a very interesting little museum for what seems to be a very quiet little town that’s off the beaten track.  If you are game you can climb up the narrow stairs to the top of the fortification where you get a fantastic view of the town and surrounding countryside.

There’s a lot of stair climbing involved (up and down) but it’s well worth it.

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Coming down from the church, a cobble stone street is lined with brightly coloured homemade socks, hats and slippers.  They are the products of what is known as the Sock Project.  The project began in 1999 when as a result of the town’s poverty, some of it’s womenfolk began knitting socks.  The socks were made from old unravelled clothing, as there was obviously no money to buy new wool.  Some of the socks were given to a couple of German residents in exchange for food items.  The socks were then sold to other friends, who sold to others and it took off from there.

Now there are 125 women who knit a total of about 10,000 pairs of socks in a year, as well as gloves, jumpers, hats, slippers and baby booties and all this money goes straight back into the community.  It’s hard to resist the funky socks lined up along little benches and strung against the fences, so a pair of socks and some nice warm slippers made it into my luggage.

After a few beers together at the local ‘pub’ – a small bar with a bench out the front, we head home for dinner at Walter’s.  Before the main course is served though, Walter tells us we should head out into the main street as the cattle are coming home from the hills.  We all jump up from our benches, cameras in hand and almost tumble over each other to get out the doorways in time.

As we reached the gateway, we could hear hooves and clanging bells heading down the street, along with some mooing.  Coming down the street, each animal would peel off from the group to head to it’s home, without prodding.  It was the most amazing sight, something I’ve never seen in my life and probably will never see again.  It was such a delight!

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Smiles still brightening our faces, we head back inside once the last of the cattle has returned home.

And dinner is awaiting us on the table.  I couldn’t contain my excitement (now I’m being facetious) when I spied the massive bowl of stew in front of me – pea stew!  I carefully tried to scoop out spoonfulls of meat and stew that didn’t contain any peas – which are my least favourite food in the world – but as you can imagine, it wasn’t easy.  The stew itself was absolutely yummy and the meat was perfectly cooked – I lumped it on pieces of fresh bread and it was in fact so good that I didn’t even mind if a pea or two made it’s way into my mouth!

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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.