Wednesday 16 May 2012, 5pm, Viscri, Transylvania
The rain makes quite distinct noises depending where it falls – a dull, flat thud if it lands in the sodden mud churned over by the animals’ hooves; or a distinct, energetic tapping if it bounces off the stone sill of our window. That distinction is obvious when you think about it, but it’s only when you have the true stillness of a place like Viscri that you fully notice such things.
If I have given the impression that life here is a rural idyll, I apologise for misleading you. In my own small way, as I lay in bed last night in the unfamiliar darkness which a lack of light pollution brings, I became very aware of just how isolated and in some ways comparatively far from civilisation the village is. Whether it’s the charcoal burners toiling over their hot fire, or the herdsmen driving the horses and cattle for 14 hours a day, life here is tough. There’s nothing quite like that for making you focus on the present and not worry too much about the future. And I guess that’s a big part of the appeal of Viscri.
The herdsmen had a grim morning today. After glorious sunshine yesterday, the weather broke overnight, and at 6.30am the herd were driven out through the village in steady rain. First came the cows, lowing noisily and straggling across the main street, some passing so close below the bedroom window that I could have touched them. Next the horses and their foals, trotting nimbly and occasionally nipping at one another as they came by. After that the goats in a small huddle, before finally a couple of lazy calves and the herdsman himself, calling instructions to the animals and keeping up a steady no-nonsense pace through the village. From the first distant lowing of the cattle to the last fading clang of a cow bell cannot have been more than five minutes.
The herders are paid by the villagers – they receive both a monthly payment, and a contribution of grain and potatoes from each villager. This latter contribution is a necessity – even as early as mid-May, the shepherds’ day begins at 6am and ends as late as 8.30pm, so they have no time to tend crops.
At breakfast, we were particularly appreciative of the cows – as well as bread, jam and eggs, we also drank hot cows’ milk. The full fat, organic milk has a deep, buttery richness which was a wonderfully comforting way to begin the day. After breakfast, as we waited for our second guide Monica to arrive, we strolled up to the village shop which stocks a wonderful assortment of items – fresh vegetables, bottled drinks, dry foods and knitted garments.
A little after 9am we drove off to Sigishoara, an old Saxon fortified town about an hour’s journey from Viscri. After two days of remote solitude, the noise and garish colours of advertising were quite a shock as we re-entered the world of offices, petrol stations and restaurants and passed through new Sigishoara to reach the old town.
First we climbed the clock tower which provides a commanding view of the area and shows clearly why this high place was a strategic military position. Many of the townsfolk used to live permanently within the fortified town itself; and those who lived outside all had space reserved in cellars within the walls so that they could seek refuge in the event of attack.
The Saxons were originally invited into Transylvania by the Hungarian kings, who were themselves under attack from the Ottoman empire. The Hungarians, at that time largely a nomadic people, did not know how to build fortified towns; so in return for tax breaks and other financial advantages, the Saxons came to fortify the land. It is a commitment they took seriously, as we saw when we entered the Saxon church. The building is laid out so that women and children could sit at the front and middle; menfolk sat at the sides and back so that even if the Turks attacked during Mass, the Saxon men could run to the town’s defence.
We lunched in the main square, with rather too much Dracula memorabilia around us. Sigishoara is where Vlad Dracul, the father of Vlad Tepes, lived – Tepes was the real historical figure on which Bram Stoker based Count Dracula. I am a fan of the book, but the tacky way it has taken over parts of Transylvania is unfortunate, and actually seems genuinely to offend some of the locals. I can see why, as it is a distraction from the real and interesting history of the region.
Lunch consisted of pork with paprika and dumplings, accompanied by a pickled cabbage salad – and was fantastic. It fortified us for a long climb up the covered steps which led to another Saxon church, the original one in fact, but now used purely as a museum. Congregations have shrunk as huge numbers of Saxons left the country, particularly under Ceausescu when Germany paid to repatriate many of them. A population for the region which once numbered in hundreds of thousands has dwindled to just tens of thousands today. So one church rather than two is now quite sufficient for worship.
We climbed down from the old town to the new, and walked over the river to the Romanian Orthodox church, built between 1937 and 1939. We could not go in, but admired the vividly coloured icons and the Byzantine style architecture, which we see so rarely in Britain. Csaba, our first guide who was still with us, had been involved in some of the restoration works, and explained how he had hung from ropes and repainted the details on some of the iconography.
As we had made an early start, we had time for another stop on the way home, at Saschiz. This small town in a valley has a fortification on a massive hill towering high above the houses. One wonders how the townsfolk made it up so steep a hill in time of attack. The fortification is now a ruin with largely only the outer curtain wall left, but at several feet thick even that is an impressive sight. The rain started falling quite heavily as we climbed, but the trip was well worth it to see once again what a community had collaborated to achieve in adversity.
One thing which has really struck me here is that sense of community – whether in the historic fortresses, or the modern day collaboration of the villagers and their shepherds. That’s not to say that there are not differences. Romanians, Hungarians, Saxons and gypsies don’t always appear to see eye-to-eye (who does?). But still somehow they manage to rub along together, with all their differences of view, approaches to life, and even living at times in relative physical segregation. It is something I would like to understand better, and perhaps will as our stay continues.
This is the first in a series of posts based on diary notes written on a recent trip to Transylvania; but being posted now owing to the lack of internet access at the time!