Romania: a Journey Through the Ages

Transylvania offers vistas of castles, rural folk culture

We had stopped the car once again on account of livestock in the road, this time for sheep that were in no hurry to make their crossing.

One oversized ram turned out to be the shepherd dressed in a sheepskin cloak that covered him from head to shin. He and his son had been leading the flock for months on a circular annual journey that took them through much of Romania in search of greener pastures. Dogs, sheep, and humans foraged all day, then slept nights in the alpine pastures of the Carpathians by an open fire.

His son took time to lead us across the pasture to what turned out to be the ruins of some centuries-old castle, concealed in the morning mist like those in the Transylvania of Bram Stoker and Hollywood.

From the jumbled remains of the gatehouse, we were afforded a rare vista of pre-modern Europe: peasants working the fields with hand tools and horse-drawn plows; a child tending two much larger goats; a tumble-down village of wooden barns and houses huddled around a churchyard.

Then I noticed our guide had started playing a hand-held electronic game. "I like shepherding," he told me in an archaic Hungarian dialect. "But I also like Donkey Kong."

Isolated by geography and politics, Transylvania shelters some of the last remaining pockets of rural European folk cultures.

Romania's bustling capital, Bucharest, charges headlong into the 21st century in a chaotic blur of concrete dust, but among the hills of this northwestern province, one travels back and forth through the centuries, and very slowly on the winding roads.

Here is the Europe of your fairy tales, full of extremes of beauty and ugliness, kindness and brutality, color and grayness. The peasants still wear portions of handmade traditional costumes although cheap imported nylon running pants, promotional T-shirts, and baseball caps are arriving.

No tourist throngs invade the mountain trails, castle ruins, walled medieval cities, and onion-domed Romanian Orthodox Churches that dot the landscape.

It won't remain like this for long. Romania is struggling westward against the legacy of Nicolae Ceausescu's grim dictatorship: grinding poverty and economic malaise. The long-suffering people will gain much, but as elsewhere, much of their heritage will be lost along the way.

A multicultural region

But for now, the resourceful traveler can catch a glimpse of Europe's past mixed in with the crumbling monuments of Ceausescu's horrid utopia (1965-1989) and the new icons of the market economy.

It's also a multicultural region, despite Ceausescu's efforts to force ethnic minorities to assimilate. Romanians are in the majority in the province, but the region's 1.7 million ethnic Hungarians form a majority in several counties and towns. The German community fled in 1990, but Gypsies, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Csangos, and other groups remain.

As elsewhere in the Balkans, the region's multicultural character has been the source of much unrest in recent centuries.

Romanians regard this as the cradle of their nation, born from the intermarriage of Bronze Age Thracians and their Roman occupiers in the early part of this millennium. Rome withdrew from this, their province of Dacia, in the face of the barbarian invasions. Nearly every horse-raiding tribe passed through here over the next few centuries until the Hungarians seized the region as part of their new Empire in the 10th century.

Hungarians ruled on and off until World War II, sometimes under Austrian overrule, other times beholden to the Ottoman sultans. Romania emerged as an independent sovereign state in the last century and was awarded Transylvania after the defeat of Germany and Austria-Hungary. It changed hands back and forth again during World War II, each time accompanied with much bloodshed.

The German settlers built the region's seven Gothic cities most travelers use as a base. Their churches, medieval fortifications, and handsome burgher houses have survived largely intact in Brasov, Cluj, Sibiu, Sighisoara, and Tirgu Mures. Their cobblestone streets, wall-ringed hills, and fanciful spires breathe the magic of Prague, only smaller and bereft of tourists.

These Hapsburg cities are the long-forgotten attics of Central Europe - dusty treasures awaiting rediscovery in the unexplored corners of Europe.

Brasov and Sibiu stand in the shadows of the Carpathians, whose cloud-tearing summits mark the southern and eastern boundaries of the province. This is where Romanians come to climb and hike in summer and (those who can afford it) ski in winter.

Bran Castle controls one of the lesser passes and is a short trip from Brasov; it's an attractive little fortress built by the Hapsburgs to collect taxes on this portion of their then-frontier.

Don't be taken in by the official deception that this is Dracula's castle. Vlad Tepes, the historic Dracula, died centuries before its construction, and the ruins of his keep are on the other side of the mountains near Curtea de Arges.

Industry in unlikely places

But the ultimate fairy-tale castle is to be found near a foul coal pit in Hunedoara. Started by Hungarian King Janos Hunyadi in the 14th century, the impressive complex will be familiar to Budapest visitors: There's a scaled-down replica in the City Park there. Unfortunately, here as elsewhere in Romania, Communist-era heavy industry has marred the landscape and made conservation of historic monuments more difficult.

You'll find smelters and industrial complexes in the most unlikely places: Ceausescu, a peasant who distrusted the city, wanted to industrialize the country without urbanizing it.

For living folk culture, make the journey to the isolated county of Maramures on the Ukrainian frontier. Many of the best folk handicrafts and clothing on sale elsewhere in Romania are made in this traditional region.

Don't miss the "happy cemetery" in Sapinta (west of Sighetu Marmatiei) where the wooden markers carry humorous epitaphs about the lives of the village's dear-departed. You'll need your own wheels to explore Maramures properly, and throughout Romania a vehicle will give you access to villages, cave-complexes, hiking trail-heads, and other places difficult to reach by bus or train. Just watch out for those sheep.

Plan Your Travel in Short, Daytime Trips

* Getting There: The region is well-served by train from Bucharest and Budapest. Depending on your itinerary, Budapest-Ferihegy airport may prove cheaper and more convenient than Bucharest-Otopeni, although the latter is closer to Brasov and the main Carpathian resorts.

* Getting Around: Trains connect all large towns and cities, but transport can be thin on the ground in rural areas. When planning your trip, remember that travel by rail and road is much slower than in Western Europe. Plan your travels in short daytime legs - you'll see more and avoid nighttime safety hazards on the tiny roads and robbery-prone railway sleeping cars.

* Money: Romania is inexpensive, especially for independent travelers. Credit cards are not widely accepted outside of the capital, and traveler's checks can't be cashed just anywhere.

* Safety: Romanians are generally kind, helpful, and generous, but the country's difficult economic transition has created some well-organized steal-from-the-tourist schemes in the big cities.

One infamous scam to be aware of: A young man follows you around asking to change money. Regardless of your attitude, "plainclothes police" appear out of nowhere, flash IDs, and demand your passport. Don't cooperate with these "authorities" who will return your documents only after lifting the cash from your wallet. Walk away: the alleged policemen generally bark commands but are afraid to follow.

Driving at night is dangerous because of livestock and reflector less wagons that share the dark winding roads.

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