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Transylvania Facts, Not Fiction

Cultural Tourism with Deep Roots

Bran Castle, Transylvania
With its 14th century turrets, towers and cliff-perch location, Bran Castle is a worthwhile museum of medieval architecture and furnishings.

While considering a visit to Transylvania, I grew impatient with myself that the first associations cluttering my mind all tumbled from the pages of Bram Stoker’s 1897 horror novel starring Count Dracula: the insane, blood-drinking, enemy-impaling nobleman who terrorized allies and enemies from his crumbling Gothic castle in the mountain forests of present-day Romania.

With artistic license based on a minimum of hard fact, Stoker did co-opt his character from a vaguely-documented 15th century prince who was something of a hero because of his relentless battles against the invading Turks. Prince Vlad the Impaler ruled for a time in lowland Romania (several hundred miles to the south of Transylvania) until he was decapitated by the Turks and his own impaled head was displayed in Istanbul. Indeed, his family name was Dracula. Stoker thought that Transylvania sounded more darkly romantic as an anti-hero stronghold, giving the region and his chosen Bran Castle a bad rap ever since.

Separating Fact from Fiction

Crossing the Romanian border from Hungary in a van with 14 fellow ElderTrekkers, www.eldertreks.com, the reality of Transylvania immediately proved to be far more interesting than its fiction. We had early warning that our Hungarian guide, Lajos Németh, had a passion for Transylvania’s remote village experiences envisioned by him as a way for poor rural people to earn money from sustainable tourism. For the next ten days, he made it his mission to share his insider passion.

ElderTreks guide, Lajos Neméth
Our ElderTreks guide, Lajos Neméth, presented us with a fresh-baked chimney cake, a traditional spit-cooked recipe of Hungarian heritage.
Photo ©Alison Gardner.

Diving into the deep end, we headed into the Carpathian mountains for a winding, pothole-dodging drive perhaps better left to 4WD adventures. From now on, Lajos enthused, we would be eating and drinking a lot more in people’s homes, barns and cellars than in regular restaurants!

As the last sun’s rays caught the mountain peaks that defined the steep narrow valley ahead, we entered the former gold mining village of Rimetea, as the Romanians call it or Torockó as Hungarian Transylvanians call it. Many towns and villages in Transylvania have two names. The history lesson is that Transylvania has only been part of Romania since the end of World War I, when western allies removed the region from the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire and gave it to Romania as a reward for siding with the allies instead of Germany or Austria. The challenge for the Romanian government 90 years on is that generations of Hungarian Transylvanians cling to their differences, including settlement names, with fierce pride. Not even the ruthless 22-year dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu and his equally ruthless wife could suppress these in the 1970s and 80s.

With mining exhausted and a remarkable heritage of buildings dating back many centuries, Rimetea’s 600 remaining inhabitants are counting on creative rural tourism for their economic future. Funded by Hungarians, the on-going restoration of village architecture is impressive, providing employment and skills training for local people, especially the young. With so many villagers wanting to host visitors, accommodations and meal delivery for individual guests (mostly Hungarians and Germans) and for small groups like ours are scattered along cobbled streets still featuring as many horse carts as motor vehicles.

In Rimetea we acquired a taste for palinka or plum brandy, a lethal colorless drink which seems to accompany every country meal in Transylvania, even offered on the breakfast table. Our group of senior adventurers embraced this cultural habit with enthusiasm, regardless of the hour.

While making daily excursions by van and on foot, we hiked to ruined medieval fortresses brooding menacingly over narrow mountain passes that border Transylvania on three sides. We learned the intricacies of making delicate chimney cakes at the home bakery of an elderly couple who supply a whole village. We visited an exquisite wood-carved Romanian Orthodox Monastery with three resident monks, one who had left a successful Internet technology career in the capital for a contemplative life next to the monastery’s sacred spring.

From the village of Enlaka, we hiked to the summer pastures of the village’s sheep herd and sampled unpasturized cheeses being made in a simple shed. We watched the last professional blacksmith in a large region working at his country forge, and mused with him about what will happen after he retires in a few years. And we met a soot-covered charcoal-making family of husband, wife and son. They gladly shared with us how they prepare new hardwood pyramids and test the progress of mature stacks, nearing a marketable charcoal state after several weeks of smoldering.

Where Did All the Saxons Go?

The Saxon German settlement of Transylvania 800 years ago and its contemporary mass exodus back to German soil in 1990 are surely one of the world’s most intriguing untold stories. Until I visited the medieval towns and villages they had spontaneously deserted just 17 years earlier, I knew nothing about such a European migration of 750,000 men, women and children in a single year. How could that be? Only by walking the village streets and hearing the personal stories of Saxons who stayed behind did I appreciate what happens when all but 30,000 members of a highly-skilled, well-educated ethnic minority make a collective decision to voluntarily abandon 800 years of their heritage.

For one thing, UNESCO moved quickly to bestow a string of World Heritage Sites designations that now protect the unique architectural and cultural treasures of eight Saxon centuries, including imposing fortified churches such as Biertan and medieval fortress towns like Sighişoara. For another, populations of Romanians, Moldovans and Roma (gypsies) from south and east arrived to occupy homes and properties, and Prince Charles started buying real estate. 

A long-time advocate for traditional architecture and the rural way of life, Britain’s Prince Charles has become a leading international light for sustainable tourism in Transylvania’s Saxon villages. He is buying, renovating and traditionally re-furnishing 18th century farm homes in economically-deprived villages, and plans to begin renting them as a way to encourage visitors to experience grassroots tourism.

Bran Castle
Britain's Prince Charles has taken a high-profile interest in buying decaying Saxon homes and renovating them for village-based tourism.
Photo ©Alison Gardner.

In the village of Viscri, we spoke English directly with Ursula, age 23, the youngest member of the only remaining Saxon family. Helping her parents with their rural tourism homestay, catered meals in the cellar, and guide service of the town’s fortified church and citadel, Ursula speaks seven languages and is a post graduate student at university. From her home, we can see one of Prince Charles’ houses across the square.

In the even more isolated Saxon village of Copsa Mare, not one Saxon remains and the only Hungarian Transylvanian in town is the church keeper. In another village where 50% of occupants are squatters, one 89-year-old Saxon woman remains. She flatly refused to move to Germany with her family. I wonder how the Saxons are doing back in Germany; do they have any regrets that they bolted from post-Ceauşescu Romania now that the country is a democracy and a European Union member?

Before exiting southern Transylvania and heading for Romania’s capital, Bucharest, I paid a visit to the real Bran Castle. Expecting to be disappointed, I was in fact delighted with the petite, authentically-furnished fortress which harbors some great stories I won’t spoil for those who plan to visit. Suitably guarding a steep forested mountain pass as it has done since 1385, it looked every bit the fairy tale castle of my childhood storybooks. The only horror proved to be running a gauntlet of merchants selling Count Dracula souvenirs between the parking lot and the castle entrance.

For More Information

Romanian National Tourist Office: www.RomaniaTourism.com.

A Latin Island in Eastern Europe:  Contrary to popular belief, Romania’s name is not associated with its significant Roma (gypsy) population, estimated at over two million, but rather with the Roman Empire’s 165-year occupation beginning in the second century AD. Unusual for its part of the world, the country has retained its love of all things Latin for nearly 2,000 years. Romania’s population is 22 million, over seven million of which live in Transylvania.

Language: Romanian is a Romance language with grammar and many words rooted in Latin, such as salut for hello and merci for thank you. This makes it easier for French, Italian or Spanish speakers to recognize words and phrases. In Transylvania, Hungarian and German are also useful foreign languages.

Opening the door:  A decade ago, Transylvania began showing up on the destination list of adventurous European travelers, but British and North American visitors are still a rarity. While the capital, Bucharest, and to some extent key medieval cities and UN World Heritage Sites are English-friendly, the fledgling village and rural tourism is virtually invisible and inscrutable without a knowledgeable guide and translator to make insider connections. From personal observation, a guide is equally important to navigate the poor-quality, unmarked roads that lead to the most memorable cultural encounters and nature hiking experiences. For active, culturally-curious travelers over 50, ElderTreks is the leader in authentic, grassroots Transylvania exploration, www.eldertreks.com/tour/ETTD000004, offering up to 16 participants Spring and Fall tours in the region.

Click here for all UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Romania, 17 of which are in Transylvania.

Alison Gardner, Senior Travel Editor of Transitions Abroad, is also publisher of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com, a richly illustrated resource for senior travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide. Readership is 1.6 million. Contact her at Alison@travelwithachallenge.com.

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