Transylvania, Romania (Day 2)

After an amazing first day in Transylvania, my guide Carina and I started our day bright and early in Sighișoara, one of the main towns in the region. Known as the “birthplace of Dracula”, it also has a rich history as one of the best preserved medieval towns in Romania, with folks consistently living in the fortress even until modern times!

Due to a fortuitous miscommunication about the Sighișoara Museum’s opening time on weekends, we arrived in the medieval part of the town an hour early, allowing us to explore it without tourists or the gaudy (and frankly, ambiance-ruining) vendors. As we started on a walking tour, we ducked into one of the first things available: the Casa Dracul, or, Dracula’s house. As the lore goes, this is the birthplace of the famous Dracula (and literally the only vampire-related thing I’ve seen in the entirety of Romania as of this writing, about 4 days after arriving in the country); however, the only thing historians CAN confirm is that at some point, the father of the man who would become the historic “Dracula” character lived in this property.

Of course, I had to do the gimmicky “Dracula’s Room” even though I knew it would be silly – and silly, it was. You walk up a flight of stairs (and get hit with a jump scare from a 99-cent Party City-esque bat), ~spooky~ music playing, and enter a room with red lighting, a truly frightening blow up doll sprawled on a couch, and a piano and set table atmospherically abandoned… and then you turn a corner and see Drac himself, lying in his coffin.

Of course, Dracula is played by an actor who pops up to scare you (I’ll admit, I knew there was a jump scare coming and still jumped!). Hilariously, he then said “take lots of photos… goodbye!” so cheerfully that the whole spell was broken.

Following our (only) vampire-related interlude, we continued our exploration of Sighișoara while we waited for the museum to open up. First up, we visited the Catholic cathedral in town, which was intriguing for having primarily Hungarian signage. As mentioned in my previous post, Transylvania was largely occupied by the Hungarian empire for much of its medieval period, then was settled by Germans as well. In Sighișoara especially, this heritage is seen through signs with Hungarian first, German second, and then Romanian last. We also saw a fascinating old cemetery with many gravestones bearing exclusively Hungarian or German writing.

The town is made up of two “levels” connected by a medieval, covered stair set, upon which an imposing Gothic cathedral (later transformed to a Lutheran church) and the abovementioned cemetery lie. It was great cardio in the morning. The lower level of Sighișoara includes ~14 towers, which in the medieval period would have been utilized by each of the trade guilds as a gathering place for members / watchtower to more broadly ensure the security of the city.

After our exploration, we could enter the museum, located on the increasing levels of the Sighișoara fortress’s watchtower. The museum included a variety of fascinating items including:

  • Historical objects from the medieval period (going back as far as the 1200s), including items from the various guilds (i.e., cobbler’s tools, hatmaker’s tools, blacksmithing tools, etc)
  • An exhibit on medieval and pre-modern medical devices (I pointed out the “amputation kit” which essentially looked like a couple rather primitive machetes; my guide joked that right next to it was the gynecological kit – we both grimaced)
  • A collection of pharmacological bottles, including an “original” homeopathy kit with a variety of tincture bottles, as apparently Sighișoara was a town famed for its homeopathy pioneers
  • Fantastic pieces of furniture and old chests
  • Original artwork to the clocktower, including a variety of emblems that would have been used to announce various seasons / holidays, as well as a set of dolls that attempted to showcase various guild members (but today would be seen as extremely problematic due to “orange-” and “black-” face)
  • An oddly incongruous exhibit on the Romanian scientist who contributed to the development of the rocket program and was later known as a significant contributor to the global space program

Of course, the view from the top of the tower is the real appeal, and it didn’t disappoint.

Then, we were on our way to our next destination: the Fortified Church of Biertan, another UNESCO World Heritage site.

Biertan tops all the lists of fortified churches in Transylvania, but I have to admit that I still preferred Herman. That being said, it did have a great display of various architectural components, from an amazing sixteenth century triptych to an original heater for the priests (they would gather around it when the remainder of the church didn’t have heat back in the day) to a fascinating locking mechanism on the door. Of course, they also had original pendants, Oriental rugs, and old pews / decor as well.

The views from the church were also incredible, and they had a small chapel with original frescoes (although not nearly as impressive as those at Herman). I was also amusing to see that Biertan had a “Couple’s Prison” – essentially a cell where they’d put couples hoping to divorce, forcing them to share one small bed, one fork, one chair, etc. until they relented and lived in “wedded bliss” again. According to my guide, it had a 90% success rate of “keeping the couple together” but I have to imagine that this was not the healthiest way of solving marital issues.

After Biertan, we started our venture into non-Saxon Transylvania, making our way to the famed Transfăgărășan highway. As we drove through rural Transylvania, we saw a couple things of interest: 1) storks – apparently storks are very common in Romania, and they build huge nests on top of electrical poles; people apparently love the storks and preserve the nests for them when they migrate so that the storks have a home to return to! 2) In the middle of absolutely nowhere, we spotted a Romani woman wearing traditional garb walking through a village – I was amazed to see someone in traditional clothing, given the previous Romani village we’d driven through had looked nearly like anywhere else in the country.

Before hitting it, we had one last stop, the Mănăstirea Cisterciană. Partially in ruins, it was hosting a wedding when we visited – we were able to view the outdoor pieces, but unable to enter the church itself. It was still beautiful!

Then, we finally hit the ominous mountains we’d been seeing the distance. Going over the Carpathian mountains, the Transfăgărășan is famous for its twisting route and incredible views. It definitely delivered on both, although I will say I was surprised at how fast the ascent and descent were (it maxes out around 8,000 feet of elevation and takes ~1.5 hours each way). Apparently Ceaușescu wanted an extra highway (then unknown to the outside world) as part of a strategic military advantage, and it has now become one of the most touristic and scenic routes to drive through the country.

At the top, there is all variety of food vendors, including a robust grill with meats, stuffed mushrooms, and potatoes, many vendors selling smoked meats and cheeses, and several selling polenta balls with cheese and sausages.

Of course, I had to try the polenta ball (it was good – the cheese was melted and tasted like emmental, so it was a hearty treat) – I also saw several vendors selling another Romanian specialty, Siorici (essentially just pig skin).

Interestingly, we saw several cars with Ukraine license plates at the top as well. Romania borders Ukraine, so this wouldn’t be surprising except for the ongoing war. Apparently, some Ukrainians are still able to leave the country as tourists (it was unclear what the conditions are, but it appears wealth / ties back, etc. assist). Either way, it was fascinating to see as an American, since this is about as close to Ukraine as I’ll probably get until things in the region stabilize.

On our way down the mountains, we started to pass through what my guide had suggested might be bear territory – apparently, bears are to Romania what deers are to the United States in terms of critters on the road. However, here, people feed them and otherwise make a spectacle out of seeing them (although obviously, this isn’t the approved thing to do and severely limits the bears’ ability to care for themselves in the wild, essentially requiring them to be moved to a sanctuary or euthanized depending on how reliant they become on human interaction).

We drove along, passing sights such as Dracula’s “real” castle (i.e., a fort known to have been built by Vlad the Impaler, who is somewhat perceived as the classic person behind the bloody lore), and finally reached a point where my guide suggested that sadly, we wouldn’t be seeing any bears. And then…

As soon as exited the typical bear-sighting area, we started seeing them everywhere. Unfortunately as mentioned, people will stop to feed them and we saw bears eating everything from bread to mini muffins to pretzels to licking plastic chip bags. The bears were cute and a little dog-like, and people seemed to take that as a sign to act like idiots and get out and get close; we heeded the warnings and stayed in the car, with the windows closed the whole time we drove through. Along the way, we saw about 7 different bears – and one even came up and licked the car’s lights (we have no idea why – we figured maybe my guide had driven by a plant that left a sweet-smelling residue of some kind?).

After the bears, we crossed Lake Belea, which has a dam offering beautiful views.

Then, we were headed back to Bucharest! Along the way, my guide shared a couple more tidbits as we passed things that sparked her interest:

  • Apparently, Romanians have a variety of local superstitions tied back to old beliefs – they still pervade in some of the rural spaces. For example, we saw several horse-drawn carts where the horses had a red ribbon on the bridle. Apparently the red ribbon is intended to prevent the horse from being cursed, likely by someone with a jealous grudge against the horse or its owner / rider (depending on the situation)
  • The vampire myth likely came about and persists as a result of a Romanian superstition related to the “Strigoi” – essentially, “undead” that come back from the dead, can become invisible, and then utilize the blood of victims for vitality. According to my guide, the last part is a bit questionable – however, the parts about protecting oneself by using garlic and silver stakes are absolutely rooted in the myth

As we entered Bucharest we came upon some more traffic – as well as a variety of gorgeous fruit stands!

Overall, it was a great two days in Transylvania. This tour not only exposed me to incredible, historic culture and some amazing artifacts and churches, but it disproved a lot of my own preconceptions about the level of development in the area. I would absolutely recommend visiting Transylvania (and staying in Bucharest several days!) to anyone even remotely considering spending time in Romania.

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