Romania – Transylvania, wild mountains and unspoiled villages

Romania – Transylvania, wild mountains and unspoiled villages

Travel

After our contradictory encounters with the various Romanian Roma and the visit of such unbelievably different cities as the modern, hip Cluj-Napoca and the crazy, post-communist Hunedoara, we once again moved into the mountains. If you missed the first part of Transylvania’s history, you should definitely have a look at it here

And the matching photo-gallery here….

Coming from Hunedoara we took off in the direction of the southern Carpathian Mountains. We were planning to drive the DN67C, better known as Transalpina, the King’s Road, one of the most beautiful mountain passes in Eastern Europe. We were not able to find out in advance whether it was already passable or still closed, but several people had told us that the road is usually open from the beginning of June and we had the 3rd of June. From Petrosani the road becomes increasingly adventurous. Narrow hairpin bends, the road’s edges partly broken away. The asphalt takes turns with gravel or dirt road more and more. The area is wild and abandoned, you only rarely see houses. Shortly after Petrosani a VW bus with a German license plate passes us on the oncoming road and gesturing wildly with his hands… Half an hour later we understand what he probably wanted to signal: that the Transalpina is still closed…until the 10th of June…What a pity!! A group of Italian motorcyclists stands at the barricade, looking as sad as we do!! If you do not want to take the same road back you have to keep on the road, a further adventurous but also beautiful ride past Lacul Vidra via Voineasa to Brezoi. You will pass through a secluded area, even for Romanian circumstances and even the settlements that begin to appear further on seem to lie back many decades behind the current times.

In search of a space for the night, we turn into a gravel road and suddenly end up in the middle of a gypsy barrack settlement. Small children, wearing grotesquely looking, adult clothes, held together by strings and streaked with mud. We realize that there’s no way through the settlement and try to turn, as 2 not friendly looking and wildly gesticulating young guys in leather jackets approach us and show us clearly that we should clear off immediately! And once again the hard reality hits us like a stone and the feelings fluctuate between gratitude for all that we have and the question whether there will be at some time a world in which no child has to grow up under such conditions and whether one even has a possibility to change something?

As we leave the long valley we cross the river Alt and on the other side of the river once again high, steep mountains await us, the Cozia National Park. One of the most secluded and wildest parks in the country with a very lively population of deer, bears, wolves, etc. Along the river we find several picnic areas and an asphalted section right on the river, like made for us, where we can stop and assimilate to the exciting events of the last two days!

On the next section to the North we reach an area that can be called the Heart of Transylvania, the former stronghold of the Transylvanian Saxons, a region that spreads, like a triangle between Sibiu / Hermannstadt in the West, Sighişoara / Schäßburg in the North and Braşov / Kronstadt in the East and catapults us once again out of the 21st century! Some interesting facts about the history of the Saxons and the Romanians can be found here!

In the following days, we travel through small villages with huge churches, full of typical saxon houses with their unmistakable gables, painted in alternating pastel colors. You see more horses-carriages than cars, the people waving to us all joyfully and surprised after passing them in narrow streets with the camper. We visit the UNESCO protected fortified churches in Biertan and Viscri and learn that the remaining handful of Saxons is almost fervently concerned about the preservation of their heritage. In almost every village there is someone who feels called to preserve the knowledge and who is happy to pass on the keys to even the most decayed churches if you’re interested in visiting. The reconstruction and maintenance of the villages is supported by various associations, including the influential Mihai Eminescu Trust. One of its main sponsors is the British heir to the throne, Prince Charles. We also hear, that the relationship between the remaining Saxons and newly settled Romanians and Roma is generally good, but that the deep cultural trenches will probably not be filled for another century. And in between this rural areas the beautiful cities of Sibiu and Sighişoara, that burst with picturesque corners

Thousands of impressions, which are best made by yourself… But we can surely give some suggestions:

Cisnădioara/Michelsburg, with the Romanesque church towering above the village, which hosts commemorative plaques for the men of the town who had fallen in the Second World War. There are lots of them and the death data are almost all in the same period. In the village you can still find many signs and announcements in German and the woman in the box office for the church answers our Romanian attempts in dialect-free German.

The owners of the Camping Ananas as well are descendants of the Saxons and with all the Germans and Swiss campers you get the feeling of having ended up somewhere in the Black Forest.

Christian/Großau, Only 4000 inhabitants but around 80 stork couples! They have built their nests on almost every mast and circle the impressive fortified church in the middle of the town.

Sibiu/Hermansstadt, one of the oldest towns in the country dating back to the 12th century. Only once taken and occupied by the Tartars, after that the thick town walls stood up to all further attacks as did the buildings of the subsequent epochs. As parts of the funds the city got as European capital of culture in 2007 were used for the renovation of the town’s center, you can now stroll through a beautifully renovated old town, that has almost been a little too decked out, or you can let yourself be charmed by the signs of slow decay you can still find outside of the center!

And you can enjoy really hearty Romanian home-cooking between Romanian families having their Sunday meals in the traditional restaurant “Crama Sibiul Vechi”, at a distance from the touristy restaurants in the center.

Biertan/Birthälm, probably has one of the most famous fortified church in the region. It dates from the 16th century, is very well preserved and has a special feature: the so-called „matrimonial prison“ or „divorce house“, in which couples wanting to divorce were locked up together for about 2 weeks with only 1 bed, 1 plate, 1 cup etc.. The idea was, that during this time all the reasons for separation could be overcome and it is said that there actually has been only 1 couple, which after the 2 weeks still wanted the divorce!

Our camper-van made quite an impression in the very quiet streets of this village with not more than 2250 souls and 2 boys around the age of 10 approached us on their bicycles. They whizzed by several times, only at first giving us furtive looks, than getting bolder and somehow starting to show tricks on their bikes. And after a few thumb-up on our behalf they dared to stop and we had a short chat. The one Roma, the other German, best friends! At least in childhood intercultural friendship seems to work! You are not gonna see a lot of cars around the village, but many horse-drawn carts full of hay.

We scout out the next village by bike.

Copşa Mare/Großkoppisch. The village, which consists of only 2 streets, is still very unspoiled and the traditional Saxon houses are picturesque in their different pastel colors. A peasant approaches us, obviously pleased to see foreign faces. Due to a lack of matching language skills on both sides, the conversation is limited to smiling and gesticulating. Nevertheless, we feel very welcome!

This afternoon, we decide to drive bit over land to scout out the area and we hope to find a nice spot somewhere in the wild for the night! The GPS shows us a pretty road and tells us that in 2 hours we will arrive at a parking space. We drive through small, sleepy villages, over hills, wait patiently until sheep herds have crossed the road and somehow we do not advance… Time passes, but the kilometers on the pothole roads melt down only slowly and it becomes ever darker. Once again, we realize that in Romania you have to double the trip-duration the GPS unit points out! And we just can’t find a possibility where we could stop for the night! As it is almost dark and we are already prepared for a night trip, a solitary tree emerges on a hill and we can see tire tracks leading up to it… We have found a dream spot! The last sun-rays illuminate the Făgăraş mountains in the distance and we fall to sleep dead tired.

The next morning we awake to loud dog barking and the sound of 100 bells. As we look out the window, we find ourselves in the middle of a huge sheep flock! Pure idyl!!

Romania is the third largest producer of sheep products in the EU and has an old shepherds culture, which is also reflected in well-known poems and folk songs and is still very much alive in the old-fashioned way.

In recent years, however, EU legislation has made the traditional way of sheep-farming increasingly difficult. There have always been protests against it and there has even been a storming of the parliament in Bucharest during a demonstration, but it did not help a lot The shepherd’s profession is dying out. One does not earn much, you have to work under harsh conditions come rain or shine, additionally with the danger to encounter packs of wolf or brown bear and you’re isolated from family and friends during long periods of time. In spite of all this, young men are often seen as shepherds among the flocks, that shape the image of Transylvania and Romania to a great extent.

But the next place worth seeing is waiting.

Viscri / Deutsch-Weißkirch: If you take the bumpy roads to Viscri, you’ll get the full Transylvania-Feeling! Flowery meadows alternate with dark forests, where wolves and bears live. Inbetween small-parceled farms, sheep herds on the hills and hay carts. In the village a goose family waddles  past us and half-naked little gypsy children run along the dusty paths. The town, which is still home to around 450 inhabitants, is a classic example of a Saxon village with a fortified church in it’s center. Once it has been a German stronghold, but after the exodus of the Saxons  in the 1980s only 15 Saxons have remained. And above all, Carolin Fernolend. Thanks to the British Mihai-Eminescu Trust (Prince Charles as one of the main patrons) and ceaselessly working inhabitatnts like Mrs. Fernolend, the impressive 800 year-old church, as well as the old Saxon courtyards and houses, have been renovated and preserved. And placed the settlement under UNESCO World Cultural Heritage protection.

Most of the inhabitants today are sedentary Roma. Living together seems to work better here than in other places. The villagers have launched joint projects like the “sock project” and are also trying to pull together in other areas. If, however, one listens more closely to the explanations during a guided tour in the church, prejudices and skepticism between Germans, Roma, Romanians and Hungarians continue to be a part of daily life and presumably tensions will only be desolved very slowly.

On the subject of prejudice, the next stop offers a lot of material too.

Sighișoara oder Schäßburg.

The city, which today has a population of around 29 000, has a beautiful, well preserved historical center, which is absolutely worth seeing. When you enter it and climb up one of the stairs that lead into the center, you will pass signs which ask you not to give beggars any money. And shortly after we encounter 2 kids, probably siblings, gypsies. Both look pretty neglected, dirty and wear no shoes. The big brother drags the smaller child after him and they approach us with their hands stretched out, begging. The sight is really heartbreaking!  A thousand thoughts flash through our minds at the same time and we would love to offer some real help! Even today, the poor Roma families live in huts, ghettoes, and live on rare casual jobs and the money their children bring home from begging. Their reality is still characterized by exclusion, prejudice and deprivation, there is no equality of opportunity. But we also know that supporting the begging surely does not lead to children being sent to school or showing them that there are other ways to lead a life. A sad and difficult situation that leaves you back thinking.

The old town of Sighisoara offers many sightseeing opportunities: the citadel, the Clock Tower, the Scholars’ Stairway which leads to the Church on the Hill and the German cemetery, the cobblestone streets with their colorful houses and the House with Antler. Everything well prepared and overrun by Asian and American tourists … And because it is said that Vlad Tepes, better known as Dracula, has lived in one of the houses, there is also a powerful Dracula tourism with all imaginable souvenirs, the corresponding restaurant and the plans to build a  Dracula theme park!

Aware of your own self being a tourist you just wish the other tourists far away, in order to be able to enjoy the really charming streets in peace … Unfortunately, the desire is not fulfilled.

But surely you have it in your own hands, so we decide to get back into the mountains, to Pǎltinis or Hohe Rinne, a winter sport and health resort in the Carpathians, which is exquisitely deserted in summer. We hike through fairytale forests, enjoy fresh water from bubbling springs, share the parking lot with only a few cows and sheep and spend a quiet night with great views!

Our time in Transylvania is coming to an end and we have not yet reached one of our goals: to see a brown bear (from a safe distance) in the wild!

But on our way to the Black Sea we come through the Bucegi National Park south of Braşov / Kronstadt. And the area is notorious for its brown bears, who also like to venture out into inhabited areas. This is, however, a real problem, because fed by stupid and irresponsible tourists, the animals lose all shyness, but not their danger. They come into the towns and villages in search of easily captured food and sometimes even penetrate into houses. And this leads to attacks  at humans and even to tragic deaths. Warned by this in advance, but still full of curiosity, we are looking for a parking space in the Valea Cerbului, one of the valleys in the Bucegi area. What we find is a Romanian permanent camper community and probably bears, as there is a single warning sign.

It’s drizzling and foggy, and as soon as twilight is falling, we only stay directly at the motorhome, in order to be able to disappear quickly. And in fact, suddenly a large dark shadow passes us about 30 m away. Shortly after you hear a loud clanking, a large refuse container is lying on it’s side and in the spotlight of a car, which is located just in front of the can, you can see a powerful brown bear having supper! He is far enough away to be observed without too much fear. His shoulder ends at the height of the standing bin, an incredibly large animal! And suddenly a young one emerges from the dark … We have goose bumps at the sight of these mighty wild animals and can only say good-bye to Transylvania thankful for all these incredible experiences we’ve had! We will be back!

Sights:
  • Fortified churches, e.g. in Biertan or Viscri
  • The classic Transylvanian cities Sibiu, Sighișoara and Brasov
  • Strolling through tiny, traditional villages like  Grosau, Copşa Mare, Cisnădioara or one of the others and let yourself be enchanted by their charm!
Outdoor:
  • hiking or winter-sports in Pǎltinis
  • cross one of the breathtaking passes of  Transalpina or Transfăgărășan
  • hiking and maybe bear-sighting in  Bucegi National Park
Camping:
  • Have a look at our extra article here!
Food & Drinks:

Sibiu:

  • Restaurant Crama Sibiul Vechi, Strada Alexandru Papiu-Ilarian 3, Sibiu 550160