Romania – A first encounter with Transylvania and it’s Tzigani

Romania – A first encounter with Transylvania and it’s Tzigani


Transylvania, which means “the land behind the woods”!

Isn’t it a fact, that for many of us this name is linked to something, that is only a myth? A vampire story invented in the 19th century by an Englishman, who had never visited the country, using as a model for the creation of his figure Count Dracula an Hungarian prince, which had only ruled a few years over a region in the area of today’s Transylvania and Walachia. This story procured worldwide fame and a dubious reputation for the territory and made Romania, especially Transylvania a Vampire-Mecca! Even though Transylvania was part of the Great Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War and was only than granted to Romania. This Hungarian past and the colonization of the region with the German-speaking Saxons in the 12th century, which gave Transylvania the German name Siebenbürgen, meaning „Seven castles“ (after the 7 cities / castles they founded) still characterizes this province, which is also called the Heart of Romania.

Transsilvania - Land beyond the forest // Romania

By the discrimination and oppression of the Hungarians after the First and of the German Saxons after the Second World War, as well as by an exodus of the Saxons during the Communist terror regime, the profile of the population  has shifted over the last 150 years.

1869 :                                                2002:

59 % Romanians                             75% Romanians

25% Hungarians                             20% Hungarians

12% Germans                                  0,7% Germans

1,3% Roma                                       3,4% Roma

Transylvania is situated in a large basin-shaped valley, surrounded by mountains, the Eastern Carpathians as boarder to the Bucovina and the Moldau region, the Transylvanian Alps in the South to Walachia and in the West the Apuseni Mountains.

We first reach the area from the East coming from the Moldau region. First thing you’ll find is a territory today still inhabited  by the Hungarian Szekeler. Suddenly all official signs are written in 2-3 languages (Romanian – Hungarian – German) and you are surprised, that after you have been able to fairly understand the Romanian signs and billboards in the meantime, all at once things turn into an incomprehensible series of lots of letters again! The solution is: Hungarian!!

The first two days are marked by two encounters that address a subject I am keenly interested in and about whose backgrounds and diversities I would love to know more. And my up-to-date experiences in Romania didn’t diminish my bewilderment! I am talking about the ethnic group of the Roma! Romania is the country with the largest population of Roma in Europe (they are only called Roma, not Sinti & Roma here). Since those Roma who settled down, in national censuses for fear of discrimination often remain silent about their true ethnicity, the figures for their number vary between 700000 and 3 million, and they are therefore probably the 3rd largest ethnic group after Romanians and Hungarians. It is estimated that they constitute about 30-60% of the population of Central Transylvania.

Roma“ is derived from „Romani“ and simply means „human being“. But many call themselves „Tsigani“ = Gipsy and do not understand that as an offense.

When we get to a large supermarket just before Sovata at the checkout we are suddenly surrounded by a really sickening smell of long time unwashed human all together with clothes that have not been washed maybe even longer. Behind us and at the cashier next to us  2 gypsy families have gathered. Their appearance is miserable! Extremely filthy clothes, children with dirty faces. All adults are incredibly fat. The women have cut holes in their t-shirts in their arm-pits for better ventilation and sweat evaporation, the men simply pull them up under the breast and present obviously well-nourished paunches! Their obesity is reflected in the amount & type of food that both families have in their shopping-carts, primarily ready-to-serve food, potato chips and 2-liter bottles of coke. Purchases which are certainly worth 60-70 €, because Romania in this regard is almost as expensive as Germany. We hurry to get out of the shop quickly because of the stench. As we are about to stow away our purchases, one of the men approaches us with full shopping bags and starts begging for money. Shortly thereafter one of the children on a chic Bonanza bike comes by and flips us off as we are not willing to give him money….At first we are both speechless and horrified how an existing prejudice, which has been mostly nurtured by  lack of knowledge and one-sided information on a very heterogeneous population, can manifest itself in form of these two families in just a few minutes! I decide to do some research on the subject of Sinti / Roma / Gypsies as I am definitely fascinated by the discrepancies in the things observed and also by the self-evident audacity we just experienced.

But the same day brings a completely different side of the story. Next to our campsite in Sovata (Camping Vasskert, highly recommended!) a city festival is taking place and we decide to drop by. Between the majority of celebrating Hungarian Szekler, we see a family which stands out completely. It is a Roma family in the traditional clothing of this area. The father is wearing black pleated trousers, a black shirt with white stripped collar tops and a black sleeveless leather waistcoat. The most striking part however is a big black cowboy hat. The two sons are also dressed very neatly with shirt and chino pants. But the eye-catcher is the mother. Long, mostly violet-colored skirt, yellow-golden blouse and a red cloth tied over the long black hair. The whole family looks gorgeous and by the way the other people treat and approach them, you can tell that they are very recognized in the town.

Roma in traditional clothing, Sovata // RomaniaRoma in traditional clothing, Sovata // Romania

So far about our first conflicting Roma encounters right after the border crossing to Transylvania.

The next day we continue west and the topic „gypsies“ will rest for a few days. Passing the Szekeler-Stronghold Târgu Mureş (80% Hungarians) we continue to the university town of Cluj-Napoca or Klausenburg. You can spare yourself the „Napoca“, no one uses it.

We are heading for a campsite outside town in Gilau (Camping Eldorado) find a nice pitch and then dash towards the city. We manage to find a parking lot close to the center, but as it is pouring in buckets we decide to get something to eat first… And we found a really fantastic restaurant, the Samsara Foodhouse with a menu that made our hearts beat faster … vegetarian, vegan, raw … everything! Besides local beer, great wine recommendations and lots of fresh juices and smoothies! And everything so delicious that we dropped in a 2nd time!!

Rain in Cluj-Napoca // RomaniaCluj-Napoca // Romania

And the restaurant suits Cluj, the second largest city in Romania. An exciting, young student city and emerging industrial metropolis full of great cafes, bars, restaurants and a very lively cultural scene. The Babeş-Bolyai University, the largest in the city, is run in three languages (Hungarian, Romanian, German) and therefore is a rarity in Europe! The historic city center offers a great contrast to the surrounding typical prefabricated slab-buildings. During our visit the international film festival TIFF (Transylvanian International Filmfestival) takes place. There are film screenings and concerts everywhere and we avail ourselves of the opportunity  to see a concert of the American duo A Hawk and a Hawksaw from New Mexico, whose mainly instrumental songs are inspired by the traditional music of Eastern Europe, Turkey and the Balkans … A great evening at Casa TIFF and by the way the probably best Gin & Tonic we’ve ever had anywhere!!!

berbeitet-NM-A Hawk and A Hawksaw

Conclusion for Cluj: An absolute discovery, ideal for a city trip!

After 3 days, we continue our journey and on our way further west we pass 2 natural phenomena: the Cheile Turzii (Thorenburger Gorge) and the Râpa Roşie, 80 -100m high red sandstone formations, similar to Badlands and in this form an absolute rarity in Europe.

Cheile Turzii is excellent for hiking or canyoning  or walking along the steep walls and caves that were hewn into the sandstone. It is also one of the best places for rock-climbing in Romania.

Cheile Turzii // RomaniaRâpa Roşie // Romania

We are heading for Hunedoara (Iron Market) and find a quiet place for our campervan at the edge of the forest near Cinciş-Cerna. The sunset in rural Romania is overwhelmingly kitschy with flocks of sheep on gentle hills in the pink evening light!

Flock of sheep near Cinciş-Cerna, Transsilvania // Romania

We sigh deeply and drink to this beauty with a sip of Ţuică from espresso cups! The sheep can move on without qualms, because after an evening walk in the clear country air and the schnapps neither one of us will have to count sheep during the night.

Sunset Țuică, Transsilvania // RomaniaSunset Țuică, Transsilvania // Romania

The next morning we set off for Hunedoara and the third part of our encounter with the culture of the Tsigani awaits us. As soon as you enter the city you feel like on another planet!  You are surrounded by gypsy palaces!

If you have never seen anything like this, you are overwhelmed by the sheer size of the houses, the countless layered roofs covered in shining metal works, the balconies, oriels, domes, golden gates with coat of arms and family insignia, courtyards of marble and the unrestrained mix of styles between Greek and Roman antiquity, Asian pagodas and nouveau riche show-off…

Roma Palaces, Hunedoara // Romania

Roma Palaces, Hunedoara // Romania

As soon as you have managed to close your open mouth and you dare a second look, you will recognize that the houses seem strangely uninhabited. At the most, small parts appear to be filled with life and many a palace has a very simple cottage or a wooden hut in the far corner of the estate, which looks a lot more inhabited. The background of the whole things seems to be the following: Prospered Roma (many by metal trade or shops abroad) can afford to build these villas as a demonstration of their prosperity, as mere ostentatious objects that should show their pride and their power. The more bling-bling, columns, lion statues, etc., the better! Very few really live in these houses. Most probably do not even have running water or proper toilets, but earth-closets in the huts.

But what they do not like indeed, is having taken pictures of their status symbol houses…You get nasty looks and it feels safer to only take pictures from the car window and run for it!

The third experience with this ethnic group does not contribute to my better understanding and nourishes my desire to learn more!

But first, we continue our trip through the strange city of Hunedoara, which, as a former industrial site and second largest ironworks in the country, besides the Roma palaces, has to offer mainly rotting factory buildings, which nevertheless are monitored by Security.

Industrial Ruin, Transivania // RomaniaIndustrial Ruin, Transivania // Romania

And then, suddenly, between all the rust and decay, next to a canning factory, the real objective of our trip emerges. The Castelul Corvinilor (Corvin Castle) rises up in the sky in front of us, as if it had been placed in the middle of a strange city by medieval aliens!

Castelul Corvinilor, Hunedoara // Romania

The construction was begun in the 15th century by Johann Hunyadi, an Hungarian statesman and was extended over the centuries by his descendants. One of them was the later Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus. Corvinus in Latin means raven and the question whether the name of the family is derived from the raven in the coat of arms of the dynasty or the coat of arms originates from the name, is not settled yet.

Anyhow there are a lot of legends around the castle, with its impressive Gothic drawbridge, the well-preserved rooms and the thick walls that are said to have been carved by Turkish slaves from up to 30m thick rock. The intended tourist-entertainment, by Minnesingers, lute players and executioners, who could also have sprung from the last Wacken Festival, goes past us… We enjoy the crazy view of the city with gypsy palaces and rotten industrialist sites…

If you are looking for more, check out the photo gallery of Transylvania!

  • Enjoying Cluj in it’s whole diversity
  • Marvelling on gypsy palaces in  Hunedoara
  • Visiting Corvin Castle in Hunedoara
  • hiking, rock-climbing or canyoning in Cheile Turzii (Thorenburger Gorge)
  • Admiring the red sandstones of  Râpa Roşie 
  • Have a look at our extra article here!
Food & Drinks:

Cluj Napoca: