Prince Charles and Dracula

I wake up nice and early, hoping for a chance to go for a bit of a walk around town before we get started for the day.

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As you may well have gathered by now, Viscri is a special place.  And I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Prince Charles loved it so much, he bought number 63.  Once belonging to the wealthiest family in the village, the home was in a very bad state of disrepair when it was purchased in 2002 through Charles’ foundation, the Mihai Eminescu Trust.  It’s now an authentic Saxon guest house (almost exactly like the one we are staying in) and you too can stay here (check out www.experiencetransylvania.ro for more info).  He apparently visits every summer and goes riding in the surrounding hills.

“Do not change anything, keep and love this place as it is”, he said.

Under the auspices of the Trust, he has started to renovate the Saxon buildings, as well as supporting the revival of traditional Romanian trades.  The role of the trust is to conserve and generate the villages and communes of Maramures and Transylvania.  There is another guest house in Malancrav not too far away.

It’s a lovely time to take a walk, so I’m not the only one that is up and about.  Being awake early means you get to see the village awakening for the day.

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As I approach our guest house, I note that it’s time for our sheep to go off to pasture.  They all file out of their pen and out the front gate of the house, bounding down the street like woolly puppy dogs, following their caretaker.  I love this place.

Marco is keen to take whoever is up for it, for a walk to see a local tiler.  Most of us immediately think decorative tiles, but rather, we will see how to make roof tiles.  We stroll through the quaint little streets and out the end of town, before heading up a rutted soil track and onto a valley.

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It’s a bit of a hike but its beautiful scenery.  Hops grows in the distance in one direction, some sheep and their shepherd abound in another and from the top of the valley we can see the town below us.

After a little while, we arrive at the tile maker’s property.  She doesn’t appear to be home, so Marco begins to explain a little to us.  It’s one of the projects supported by Prince Charles foundation as it turns out.  Not long into his conversation, the family arrives home from town.

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The lady of the house leads us down to her mud pit and explains step by step how she and her husband create the tiles.  It’s hard work and some people in the village are jealous of the opportunity they have been given to run this business.  Small towns obviously have their problems and prejudices, no matter where they are.

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We wave goodbye and head back to town in another direction.  If the journey here was a hike up the hill, the journey back is a balancing act down the hill.  I’d never thought much of old Charlie, but after the last twenty four hours I have developed a lot of respect for his work in this region.  I was a little curious as to why he was so enamoured of Romania, and I found my answer.  He is, apparently, a descendent of Vlad the Impaler!

As throughout Romania so far, fruit trees litter the scenery wherever you are – on the streets or our in the countryside and you are generally encouraged to just grab some along the way.  Today there is plum and apple trees lining the hillside, so Marco pulls little handfuls off to hand around to us as we trample through the mud.

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It’s time to leave this quaint little village now.  I wish we had one more night to spend here – it’s been such a lovely grounding experience – no internet, no TV, just rural life all around you.  But Brasov awaits us, so we board our minibus once more and get back on the road.

We drive for about an hour and a half before we reach the town of Brasov with its population of less than 300,000.  Again, it was a Saxon settled town and features a walled citadel.  It was the crossroads of many important trade routes that linked Europe with the Ottoman Empire and the Saxon’s grew quite wealthy off this.

It’s also famous for a few other things.

Remember the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin?  The town of Hamelin is overrun by rats so they call in a magical man with a flute to rid them of the plague.  The rats disappear but the town reneges on its agreement to pay the piper, to which he responds by also removing 130 of the town’s children through a cave, never to be seen again.  For a long time, the fairytale was believed to have been a reference to the death of the town’s children from the Bubonic Plague (caused by the rat infestations) and a thinly veiled cautionary tale of why you should never renege on a promise.  However, there are other versions of the story, and one of them sees the children settling in Transylvania.  And Brasov (in Transylvania) is reputedly where the children emerged from the cave.

The second would be the massive Hollywood style sign perched high atop Tampa Mountain.  But why?  Well back in the 1950’s, the town of Brasov actually changed its name to something else – Orasul Stalin or Stalin City.  The workers of Brasov thought they deserved this honour because they had exceeded their mandated production quotas.  The wish was granted and to commemorate the occasion, the name STALIN was spelt out across the mountain using darker coloured leaves.

At the end of the 50’s, the town was renamed Brasov and all the darker coloured trees were chopped down.  Details on when and why the new sign was erected in the Hollywood style are hard to find.  You can take a cable car up to the top to get a close and personal view, but our time here is very limited and there’s something else I want to see.

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Another is that it’s a good place from which to see Bran Castle, better known as Dracula’s Castle.  At 60m tall, it is spectacular, but it’s best seen from afar like most things of size.  Still, some of us are keen for a closer look.  But that will need to wait.

We take a quick walk around the town with Marco pointing out a number of important sites.  The main square, off which our hotel is located, is quaint and full of restaurants on one side, with an art market set up in the middle.

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The main attraction is the gothic Black Church.  The Black Church is a protestant church, completed in 1477 and it took its name from its fire-blackened walls after a fire took hold in 1689.  The original statues from the exterior are now inside, along with some 120 Turkish rugs which hang from its balconies.  Worshippers at the church drop coins through the wooden grates in the floor and hope for the best.  If you know where to look, there are scrape marks outside the church, which some locals swear are from soldiers’ sharpened swords from the past centuries.

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For those of us who can’t resist, Marco has arranged for a guide to take us to Bran Castle.  Claudia is very bubbly and eager to show us Bran.  Six of us jump in the back of a minivan with a new driver and off we go, Claudia chatting excitedly as we go.  We are a little quiet after our long walk this morning, our travel here and rushed tour of the city and I feel a little sorry for her because she now thinks she is chatting too much.

The queue outside Bran is long, but it’s not a bad queue says Claudia.  It’s usually a lot longer.  We don’t have to worry through because with Claudia by our sides we get jump the queue access.  Of course once we get inside the castle it is busy, but as we have a limited amount of time here, we are directed to particular rooms of the castle where Claudia explains about Vlad Tepes and something else that scared many Transylvanian’s – the strigoi.

Romanian legend has it that the strigoi are the evil souls of the dead that turn into ghosts and haunt the countryside.  They are not born, they are created by one strigoi turning a soul into another strigoi by sucking the blood out of them until they are dead.  Hence this is where the story of vampires and Dracula began.

So how did it become know as Dracula’s Castle?  Bram Stoker’s character, Dracula, is a Transylvanian Count with a castle located high above a valley perched on a rock with a flowing river below in the Principality of Transylvania.  But Bram Stoker himself never visited Romania.  It’s just that his imaginary depiction of the castle from his first edition of the novel so resembled Bran Castle rather than any of the others in Romania.

Dracula’s character is often confused with that of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), sometimes known as Vlad Dracul, who was a Walachian Prince.  Dracula as he is perceived today is a fictitious character whose name is derived from Vlad Tepes who was depicted by some historians of that time as a blood-thirsty ruthless ruler (it was said that he impaled so many people on a hill near Brasov that it resembled a forest, so who knows, they could be entitled to that opinion!).  Vlad did actually spend a few nights in Bran Castle on his flight from the Turks in 1462 so I guess that’s where it all got confused.  The moral of this story is Vlad Tepes – real.   Dracula – not real.

Or is he…..?

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PS.  If you want a great guide for your Transylvanian holiday, you can arrange for Claudia to guide you around – head to The Transylvanian for more information.

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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