My first sunrise in Transylvania
Somewhere back in time I remember seeing a film of the steeples of Sibiu at dawn, an eerie mist danced in the valleys and across the hills to a sky cloaked in a delicate shade of apricot. When checking into the Ramada I had asked them for a room on a higher floor facing the walled ramparts of the old town. It was one of my wishes to see those hills dance for myself. Like searching for Mount Fuji through cloud cover I had hoped for the best but had asked for nothing. It was still night when I had stumbled out of bed to check the time on my phone. Glancing out of the window to a blackened starless night, the ghostly streets flickered orange from the street lamps. At first it seemed there was nothing to see but to the east I noticed a tiny speckle of pink trying to climb over the jagged silhouette of a far off mountain range. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep after that. I must have sat there at the window for a couple of hours drinking tea and listening to Miles Davis. After a while when the birds started to sing the street lights were switched off and the first inhabitants began to appear, scurrying their way to work. By the time the street cleaners turned a corner sweeping the litter away I was in awe of the sky, a blaze of pink was reflected in my eyes and in the foreground the medieval monuments of Sibiu bathed exquisitely in their spotlights from the night before. I grabbed my camera to try and capture it but in a way it didn’t matter, such technology would never be capable of capturing the whole world in a single frame.
So began the day that I would discover the Romania of my dreams. To me that land had always been about the rural villages with their people connected closer to the earth than we city dwellers would ever understand. Toiling away almost in another century to the simplicity of the day showing the world just what we had lost. I had hoped to stay in Maramures, a remote region to the north where people still used sickles in the fields and festivities were still regarded as a time to get dressed up. It was known for it’s wooden villages almost medieval in character. Due to time restrictions I had to opt for rural Transylvania which was easier to get to and luckily seemed just as appealing.
Sitting under a tree on the approach to Fantanele, the church is on the hillside to the right.
I travelled towards the lower slopes of the Cindrel Mountains stopping on the outskirts of a village called Fantanele to lie in the grass and look at the wild flowers. The village was located in a gentle valley overlooked by it’s ecru coloured church located further up a steep hillside. Walking through it’s unmarked streets it was everything I had hoped for, people riding on carts pulled by horses, charming colourful houses at times anarchic in appearance and built mostly in the Romanian style, the rocky narrow lanes going off in all directions. A little while later the stillness was interrupted by an elderly man driving through the village in his old Dacia, it’s suspension creaking on the uneven road. He was wearing a straw hat and lifted his hand to acknowledge me as he passed by. I followed narrow steps which seemed to cling anxiously to the hillside in the hope that they might lead me to the church. Halfway I passed a cracked stone shrine painted white on the outside and decorated with a vine of blue leaves making their way snakelike around the structure. Inside it’s beautifully faded ochre frescoes of Saints were crumbling away, reduced to a powder to be carried through the village everytime a breeze meandered up the valley.
When someone says Romania to you this could be the image you have in your mind. Photo taken in Fantanele.
While travelling through Rasinari I noticed a village higher up the hill and knew it must be Prislop. While walking towards it a local advised me not to go there as it was a “gypsy” settlement where I would most certainly encounter trouble. I was shocked by this information, the Romani I thought were a friendly, alluring folk. I knew them as the people who had wandered out of India a thousand years ago to escape persecution from the caste system. I had met a Romani family while walking one afternoon in Budapest, as the man walked through Szabadsag Square he had played a violin to which a small girl had danced around him. Now I was in a strange land and decided to heed the advice of the woman and headed downhill instead.
At Sibiel Church
It was in Sibiel that I feel in love with Romania. Sibiel was charming, the only sounds I could hear were insects and the noise of the small stream flowing over rocks towards the Cibin River. It wasn’t Sibiel in particular that had me in awe but had something to do with the interior of it’s church. I can best describe entering the church as the moment your face is illuminated when opening a treasure trove of jewels. The ceiling had been painted blue to represent the night and in that night were twinkling stars and to me the most beautiful angels on Earth. Sunlight coming through a window played off against the gold leaf and frescoes, the intensity of the love conveyed by the artists caught me off guard. The floorboards creaked under a mosaic of worn carpets as I walked towards it’s simple altar decorated with paintings, local textiles and pink flowers. It seemed both very old and dusty but much loved at the same time. I had to walk towards a window and pretend to look out at the graveyard so that the caretaker who had opened the church for me wouldn’t see my emotions. Walking into Sibiel Church I knew instantly that one day I would return to Romania. I have looked at the photos I took inside Sibiel Church a number of times to try and find that one symbolic thing that would have had a hold over me but still it remains a mystery. I could never imagine describing a place in Europe as exotic but that church was.
Inside the mystery that is Sibiel Church
Later on in the day I followed a steep winding path towards a Romanesque church on top of the hill of Michelsberg overlooking the village of Cisnadioara. I climbed up and sat on a broken section of the 13th century defensive wall where I snacked on local pastries made with herbs and goats cheese. It was already summer but in the distance loomed the peaks of the Fagaras Mountains, now and again the clouds would reveal their snowcapped summits. The air and silence was completely rejuvenating, only now and again pleasantly disturbed by the sound of distant cowbells. This church in Cisnadioara was reasonably old, 12th century, and the only remaining Romanesque church left in Transylvania. It had somehow escaped the Gothic modernisations which had swept the region. The ground was littered with football sized, moss covered boulders, each one carried there from the river bed centuries before by young men eager to show their strength and to prove that they were ready for marriage. These stones were to be used as weapons against the Tartars and later the Ottomans when the church was attacked. I couldn’t help but smile when I realised there was no one there, the lack of tourists and even staff one of the greatest charms of Romania.
The Saxon farm boys
Leaving Cisnadioara I met some Saxon farm boys who led me across a field to try sour cherries that were growing on a tree. We talked about my life in the city and they asked if they could visit me. They told me that sometimes they go to Germany to visit relatives but that life in Romania was good too. Later they showed me a barn that they were restoring, I was amazed when I realised they had no electric saws and that everything was being done by hand.
Fortified Church of Cristian and the Lard Tower to the right
I eventually made it to the Fortified Church of Cristian, a small village not that far from the outskirts of Sibiu and wandered towards a grassy square facing a high wall with a small solitary window. On this area of grass was where the sinners, outcasts and sick were kept and were forbidden from entering the church. I imagined muddy tents inhabited by ragged starving people. The priest would open the small window where he would give sermons, I read that scraps of food were also thrown to them from that window. I strolled through the church and headed to the Lard Tower where food for the villagers was stored. In the summer due to the heat the Lard Tower was only opened once a week on Sundays so that the villagers could get supplies. Now it was just a museum and unmanned shop, the only villager now looking for supplies was a skinny black cat sitting by the doorway licking it’s lips. Disaster struck Cristian in the mid 17th Century when the Ottomans passed through the village on their way to Alba Iulia from Sibiu. A local noble persuaded the troops not to attack the village and they agreed. As they were passing through one villager under the influence of too much wine attacked them. The Ottomans set the church and village on fire, it was said that most villagers suffocated from the smoke. Disaster struck again during an outbreak of plague when the population had been decimated. The village was later repopulated at the start of the 18th Century by Landler Protestants banished from Catholic Vienna whose decendants remain to this day.
Discovering rural Romania has been enthralling. What strikes me most is the friendliness of it’s inhabitants, they seem to really want to help a traveller when lost, or maybe it’s because i’m a woman travelling alone. The landscapes are rustic like in Central Europe only more dramatic and incredibly beautiful. Centuries old artworks are exposed to the elements and fading away which seem to intensify their value while adding a sense of romantic melancholy. When trying to look at a church you have to look for a caretaker who most of the time will appear with a huge key probably made by a blacksmith in another century.
It saddens me to think that this world will fade as the country becomes bombarded with European Union regulations but at the same time I wish progress for the villagers. Hopefully they will find a middle ground and move along with the rest of us while holding onto the things that matter.