ROMANIA

 

In May 2003, we toured Romania driving some 1300 miles in the three major areas: Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia. A trip report follows the pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Romania is home to many Romas (Gypsies). In Sibiu reside both the Roma emperor and the Roma king. Both are self-crowned, related to each other and feuding. The emperor’s castle on the left is typical gypsy architecture with many towers and turrets.

 

 

 

 

In neighboring Sibiel we found the very common sight of storks nesting on top of power poles. This is a very typical village.

 

 

 

 

Also in Sibiel, we had lunch at a private home/farm house that provides room and board for vacationers. This is one of the rooms they rent. Juergen is trying on traditional clothes (that people still wear today). That shirt and hat are a hundred years old.

 

 

 

Quite a different experience was a 14 hour train ride on a real logging train pulled by a steam engine. In this picture, the ashes are cleared out from the front. The fire wood is stored in the front part of the train car that followed the engine. In the back of that car was the small seating area for us and the workers. Every few hours, the engine stopped at a creek and siphoned  in fresh water for the steam engine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Maramures area in the north-west is famous for its old wooden churches, some dating back 500 years. They’re magnificent structures with exquisite wood craftsmanship. Village homes also have “show-off” entry gates like this one.

 

 

 

 

The interiors of the wooden churches are full of old paintings, some on wood, some on linen. These interesting paintings are in various stages of preservation

 

 

 

 

Very famous are the 16 C painted monasteries in Moldavia. Biblical stories are portrayed on the outside church walls for illiterate soldiers or peasants who were unable to enter the church or understand the Greek Orthodox liturgy. On the left, the Moldovita Monastery. The paint is still bright on the southern walls – the paintings on the northern walls are in bad repair due to  the northern storms of the harsh winters..

 

 

 

 

 

A lady with her daughter in traditional dresses enters the church in Sucevita.

 

 

 

 

Voronet Monastery (now a nunnery) is famous for its ”Voronet blue” color. A nun explains some of the paintings and symbolism to Yvonne.

 

 

 

 

 

Part of Romania has been influenced by Saxon settlers dating back to the 12th century. It’s called “Siebenbürgen” in German (Transylvania today). The 18C village of Viscri (Deutschweißkirch) has been “adopted” by Prince Charles and everything is done to preserve its original character (it’s now a UNESCO world heritage site).

 

 

 

 

Behind the fortified church (more on fortified churches below) we found a seven-holer. That was a record for us. Those Saxons must have been sociable…(it was also the school)

 

 

 

 

Storks were everywhere and they’re beautiful. They are a fertility symbol in Germany, but here and in the rest of Siebenbürgen, there are only a few aging Germans left. Since 1989, when they could finally leave Romania for Germany, there has been a mass exodus.

 

 

Many Saxon churches were fortified with encircling walls to protect against the invading Turks. Each family in the village had a small apartment and a grain storage area inside against the wall. In case of an attack, the whole village moved inside. It’s said that none of these was ever taken. These are unusual because they are fortifications built by peasants.

 

 

Here is our trip report:

 

What’s to see in Romania? We went in order to find out. In the process we drove 1324 miles with our guide/driver. Naturally, Juergen has GPS (we have a name for the unit: Geeps) tracks proving that! If you think that’s unnecessary, consider that almost every day Juergen was able to catch the guide/driver when he was going down the wrong road. Not all roads are correctly signposted, but Geeps knew!

 

In Bucharest, our first positive surprise is that the Palace of Parliament (that was started by Ceausescu in 1984) is not the pile of garbage we expected. It still is a horrible waste of money in a very poor country. The building is estimated to cost $3.3 billion. Some interesting statistics: one-sixth of Bucharest (the old part which included 12 churches, three monasteries, two synagogues and 7000 homes) was bulldozed to accommodate this building, which is 2nd largest in the world after the Pentagon. Seven hundred architects worked on it. They accepted plans from all and the winner was a 27 year old woman. She was, and still is, lead architect. The surprise is that inside, everything is quality. The marble is perfectly cut and matched, etc. If anything got marred or chipped it was replaced. Everything was made in and from Romanian products. The thousands of crystal chandeliers, football field-sized rugs, marble everywhere, all raw products and everything created is “native” to Romania. The question is for what? For one couple’s egos, mainly. It is now a main tourist attraction as well as housing some of their government agencies.

 

 The other two main “things to see” are the 14C – 18C wooden churches in the north (Maramures) and the painted monasteries in the northeast (Southern Bucovina). They are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

 

THE WOODEN CHURCHES

 

In shape, the village wooden churches are like our old churches in villages in our NE, but these are unpainted. They are rectangular and have very tall steeples. A difference is there are usually a couple of roofs, one over the other, and the roofs are not always rectangular, but undulating, with rounded corners. They use smallish shingles giving a refined look. There is always a “lookout” area at the top of the tower so the church served the village in two ways.

 

The paintings inside these old wooden churches are really interesting. They cover walls and ceilings. The religion in Romania is Greek Orthodox and it’s interesting to see what happened to the earlier Greek gods. In each church, the wind god is portrayed in a flying cart pulled by horses. He was “mapped” onto a Christian saint …and so it goes with the others. In the west, we think of Vienna as being the stopping place of the Ottoman Empire; actually, many Romanian nobles held the Turks off in this area. In the churches and monasteries, there are often paintings of the biblical women who killed, but here depicted killing men dressed like Turks. We were told that the symbolism for the people was that it was all right to kill to protect yourself and your family. In the scenes showing the last judgment, the ones not making the grade are wearing turbans. We spent a lot of time in each church and monastery as they were quite different from the European Roman Catholic churches.

 

THE PAINTED MONASTERIES

 

The 15C “Painted Monasteries” in the NE part of Romania live up to their reputation. They’re UNESCO World Heritage Sites and they’re wonderful. They were built in the 17C when the area was threatened by Turkish invaders, so they are surrounded by fortress walls. The exterior walls of the churches were painted with biblical stories in order to educate the soldiers and illiterate peasants who were unable to enter the monastery church. After all the centuries the paintings on the south, east and west walls are in good shape, with strong colors. The monasteries have a different major color. (RED is from the root of a southwest Asian perennial plant having small yellow flowers and a red root. BLUE is from cobalt or lapis and YELLOW is from sulphur.)

 

We had two very special monastery experiences. At Sucevita Monastery, we noticed a woman standing near the door to the nunnery. Our guide smelled food and asked if it would be possible to eat there. The woman happened to be a friend of the Abbess and invited us in. We were served in a wonderful modern room with floor to ceiling windows looking out on the east end of the painted monastery. What a view! The young nun who cooked also served us. She was a fantastic cook and we were served vegetables, meat, and pork after a wonderful soup course. We were surprised about the meat because the nuns are vegetarians because a now dead priest told them to be so. It wasn’t their choice and now they must serve meat to visitors! There was, of course a big bottle of plum brandy, a carafe of wine and water. The delicious Romanian plum brandy is always served. She made an outstanding multi-layered cake. She was very shy but we managed to get her to allow us to take her photo.

 

The charge for a meal there is whatever the guest felt like contributing to the monastery. We invited the woman to eat with us. She was the French teacher for the local high school and was very pretty in a quiet way. We asked her if she had any problems with teens with studs in their tongues and noses, and she said “that’s THEIR problem”. She admitted she was a popular teacher when we told her we thought she was. We had a very nice lunch with her. She wanted to practice her English.

 

The second experience involved Juergen’s knowledge of Greek. Very often in these Greek Orthodox monasteries (both the wooden churches and the painted monasteries) Christ’s halo had three Greek letters on it: O Ω N (or in small letters: o ω ν). We did not understand if the letters were abbreviations for something and if they were, what they stood for.

 

Juergen had our guide ask every monk and nun and priest we came across in the different monasteries what the three letters stood for but was never satisfied with the answers. We were told it meant ”Christ the Almighty”, “alpha to omega” (even though there is no alpha in the halo) and so forth. Finally, at yet another monastery, a monk was giving us a tour of their museum (old, old books) and as he spoke English and had a university education, Juergen asked him directly. He gave the answer:

 

o ών

which means “the one who is”

 

(ών is the present participle of “to be”). It turned out not to be an acronym but sort of a sentence.

 

The monk then went and got a Greek grammar so he and Juergen could discuss it in detail. That having gone well, we asked about the trinity. They believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are completely separate “persons” (he stressed separate). Yvonne asked if there was an umbrella God above them or if they were three Gods, and he said absolutely neither, that there was only one God. He said how that worked wasn’t questioned. He was a very gentle, maybe 30-year old.

 

THE GYPSIES (ROMA)

 

Most of us associate Gypsies with Romania, although they originally came from India. I think it’s now generally accepted that “Gypsy” designates a life style rather than an ethnic background. Anyway, Romania has bunches of them. They are mostly in Transylvania. While we were in Sibiu, we read the following in the Lonely Planet:

 

Unlike other ethnic minorities, Romania’s Roma (Gypsies) do not seek a nation state. Rather, their aspirations lie in the rival leadership of Roma King Florin and Roma Emperor Iulian – two self-proclaimed chieftains who battle the government for Roma rights in Romania in between battling each other.

 

Florin was crowned king of ‘all Roma everywhere’ in Sibiu in 1997, at the age of 41. The Pentecostal minister inherited the 24-carat gold coin crown from his late father.

 

Self-styled Emperor Iulian holds court at his palace on the same street (well, not quite) in Sibiu as his rival king. He crowned himself emperor of all Roma in 1993. His crown, comprising 40 gold coins studded with diamonds and rubies, was valued at $87 million.  And so on.

 

Well, that sounded great so we requested that our guide take us to these dwellings. He couldn’t believe we were interested, but he asked around and eventually we found the emperor’s home. What a sight! Half a city block of towers, turrets, balconies, colors! All that, and guess where a dozen of the family (?) was having lunch?!?  On the front steps of this mansion. They did not look at us in a very welcoming way, but we had the car for a getaway! We took lots of photos and enjoyed the scene immensely.

 

Then the guide asked around until we found ourselves at the king’s place. This compound of several homes was behind a locked fence and we couldn’t see much so we got out of the car and looked through the gate. A man came over and the guide told them we wanted to see the king’s house. Then his 20-year-old daughter (princess?) came to the gate and let us in. She was wearing black cotton pants and a t-shirt, and our guide commented that she didn’t look/act like a typical “Gypsy”. She has relatives in the US, and told us she wanted to visit them. She was very quiet and didn’t seem to be completely comfortable with showing us around. Maybe she was bored and we were a diversion. Anyway, I don’t think they have many people like us “drop in” and some older, more stereotypical Gypsies started appearing from cellar rooms. The new house wasn’t finished, but we were taken into the living room – all of marble with a curving staircase to the second floor. At one end was an extremely elaborate (think Marie Antoinette) area with a few fancily padded, flowered patterned chairs, a love seat, and a coffee table. Her aunt came in next and we were introduced – she was typical “Gypsy” – black braid to her waist, long flowing skirt of many colors and clashing blouse. The house behind the new one belonged to the king’s father. That house was a normal two-story house, but had lots of old furniture piled high in front. There was a swimming pool with water of the most unappealing texture and green color. They had a fiercely barking dog tied to a dog house by the fence. Juergen was taking a picture of the assembled family and backed around a corner into the dog’s territory. The dog tore a hole in Juergen’s pant leg. The “princess” said the dog more rips clothes to scare people rather than bite them. Thank goodness!

 

THE SAXON MINORITY

           

Our next surprise was our interesting meeting with a couple of the remaining Saxons. We visited a Saxon town that’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a place Prince Charles is pouring his own money into its restoration.

 

First a little background: Following devastating Tartar raids in the 13C, the King of Hungary invited German Saxons to Transylvania to defend the crown’s southeastern flank. He offered the Saxons free lands and tax incentives to persuade them to settle in the region. They founded seven very wealthy towns that came to be called Siebenbürgen (seven boroughs). Juergen was familiar with that name, but completely unfamiliar with the Saxon story in Romania. The Saxons came with all their skills and the resulting guilds were very wealthy and built wonderful churches and city walls. During that time, the indigenous Romanians were serfs. In one rich city, the Romanians were only allowed inside the gates one day a year – and then in a parade! Naturally, ever since that time feelings have not been very good between the Hungarians, the Saxons, and the Romanians – the disputes continue today.

 

Interesting is the fortified churches that the Saxon peasants built for themselves in the villages. There are many of them. The church is surrounded by a fortress wall that looks “normal” on the outside, except that the parapet is covered. Inside the wall, stacked two or three stories high, are rooms. There was a “cell” for each family in the village for use in times of siege. Each family also had a storage area inside the walls. Some of these peasant fortresses were never taken during a siege. Juergen had long talks in German with the caretakers of two of these. Our Romanian guide was uncomfortable with this, but we gave him no choice as they wouldn’t talk openly in Romanian for him to hear and translate. Each had stories to tell about their mistreatment by the Communists and by Ceausescu. In 1990, as soon as they could leave for Germany, they did. In both villages we visited, the remaining Saxons are over 60 years of age. Remember, these Saxons have been in those villages since 1200s. They are extremely bitter.

 

Small farms are everywhere in Romania and most people walking along the roads carry a scythe. Horses pull wooden plows. People are very poor and getting poorer because the government wants to join the EU. That means money must be spent on sewers and the rest.

 

We learned a lot – and that’s why we travel!