Eastern Europe – Part II: Into the Wild Transylvanian Nights – Romania, Europe
Somewhere inside Hungary, I woke up to find my camera and camcorder stolen, together with a memory card I intended but forgot to take out. More than 300 pictures were in that memory card – now gone.
They were still in my bag when the train passed Hungarian customs around 6:30 a.m. The sun was out, I thought danger would pass with daybreak. I let my guard down, did not hold my bag tightly, I fell asleep.
I had only an empty bag left (Thank God my returning tickets were still there). I asked the conductor for help, but he wasn't interested (or he did not understand me). This is a rural part of eastern Hungary, not many people speak English. The train made stops every 20 minutes, the thieves must have long gone. Even the border control officers refused to assist me. I left Hungary, unsuccessful at trying to find my stolen items.
Ironically, I lost my precious belongings in a country I did not intend to visit, forced to pass through, on a train I hadn't planned on taking – the lowest point in my whole trip.
I had no insurance, making a police report became unnecessary. I decided to stay on the train, continue going to Romania. With a broken heart, I entered a country I had been trying so desperately to get into. Now I was there having paid a huge price.
The train stopped at the border area for quite awhile, later moved forward, then stopped again. This was going on for more than an hour (which caused further delay for my arrival). Finally, it started moving fast forward again, traveling from the western Crisana region into the Transylvania Region. After entering Transylvania, the scenery started to morph from monotonous flat plain into rolling hills. We were entering the Carpathian Mountains.
At 8:20 p.m, one and a half hours late, the train pulled into Sighisoara, Romania. There were no announcements so I had to pay close attention when we arrived at a station. The car I was in was the last one which made it difficult to know the station we were in since the car never made it to the inside of the platform. I was lucky, though, a stream and a beautiful medieval clock tower on a hill across the river indicated I had arrived in Sighisoara. Quite a few backpackers got off here.
The station was small and basic – no tourist information center. With a good map on Lonely Planet, I found my way to the nearest youth hostel, Nathan’s Villa Hostel, but I was surprised they did not receive my reservation sent a day ago. I was referred to the private house next door. They charged 60 Lei (17.15 euros), compared to Nathan's Villa's 10 euros per bed. I had my own room with a pullout sofa bed, I reluctantly accepted the offer. The owners did not speak any foreign language (I even tried French and German), they seemed nice, though. Since Nathan’s Villa did the referral, I was allowed to go there if I had any problem and I could hang out in their lounge area.
Feeling extremely worn out and depressed (could not stop thinking of my stolen camera and camcorder), I should have gone to bed early after the accommodation issues had settled. When I heard there was a bar-hopping outing at Nathan’s Villa that night, I went along. Led by a local, Nathan’s Villa manager, Lumi, I wanted to see what Romanian nightlife was like. Hopefully, a little partying and alcohol would help me get over my recent loss.
There were more hardcore backpackers in Sighisoara than in Krakow. Many visit Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia), but not the more popular destinations like the Czech Republic and Poland. Some spent a long time wandering – wherever – without a plan or schedule. In my group, two English guys in their forties or fifties had been on the road for almost a year. A cyclist from Belgium planned to bike around Romania, maybe Ukraine, in his one-month vacation. A Scot finished teaching English in a Romanian village and was now journeying. Interesting that there were few Australian travelers. I found out later Romania is one of a few countries that requires Australians to apply for entry visa.
We had a blast at a local nightclub called “No Name". In addition to some nightclub staples, Shakira, for example, they played some Spanish and Romanian dance music. Beer and mixed drinks were cheap, a huge bottle of beer (even imported ones like Beck and Heineken) were betwee five to seven Lei.
After the nightclub closed, Lumi took us back to the hostel lounge to continue the party for more drinks. The two Englishmen brought out several huge bottles of beer – Beck and local. The alcohol flowed freely, I ended up having too many drinks. Having lost my camera and memory card, I didn't care about a hangover the next day.
When I stumbled back to my bedroom, I saw it was already tomorrow – the day after my worse day, now history. I woke up at 1:00 p.m. Oops! I needed a few more days before I could continue my journey. Memories were still too fresh.
Sighisoara is near the geographical center of Romania. With only about 36,000 people, it really isn't a “city". It's a place that has stayed still for 600 years. From the Piata Hermann Oberth, there are curved covered steps leading to the old center and to the second gate at the top underneath the famous turnul cu ceas (clock tower). There are some cute slowly revolving figurines in the giant clock. The view is wonderful.
Tourists flood to Sighisoara for one attraction – it's the birthplace of the world’s most famous vampire, Count Dracula. Dracula is a literary myth, created by Anglo-Irish writer, Bram Stoker, who had never set foot in Romania, conducting his research in the British Museum. His book was made into a movie – not a very good. The myth helps Romania rake in tourist money.
Walking toward the main square, Piata Cetatii, I passed by Dracula's house. It's really the house where Vlad Tepes was born in 1431. Now it houses an expensive restaurant, with a tacky and cartoon-like vampire figure standing at the entrance. I was so amused by the figure, I wanted to take a picture. I realized, then, I no longer had a camera.
Piata Cetatii is small and touristy. Most of the square is occupied by chairs and tables of the restaurants and coffeehouses nearby. I had a simple lunch at the Café International and Family Center that offers largely vegetarian meals, yeah! After my lunch break, I went up Str. Scolii, the Scara Acoperita (covered stairway). Its 172 steps lead to another hill, higher up. Because it is covered, I found the stairway too dark at some points. At the top there is a Lutheran church, called “Church on the Hill” (Biserica din Deal), and behind the church, an enormous German cemetery.
Both the church and the cemetery reminded me of the legacy of German immigrants in Transylvania. Called “Saxons” by local Romanians, Germans from Rhineland (which is not near the province of Saxon) relocated to this region in the twelfth century. They found seven towns and gave Transylvania its German name, Siebenbuergen, seven fortresses. Checking my Lonely Planet information, I was not surprised to learn that almost all of the most famous Transylvanian towns are one of those “seven fortresses".
My cultural upbringing reminded me it was not good to walk in a cemetery (some Taiwanese superstition about ghosts and unclean spirits). However, I remembered that Sabina from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera's classic, enjoyed walking in cemeteries because it purified her senses and helped her be more introspective. So, I went in. It's huge, well maintained and maybe it would help me to think more clearly – about losing my camera, about the "feeling" I had the night before it was stolen.
I had this strong sense of helplessness. It started to rain, I was depressed.
To cut costs, I moved into Nathan’s Villa Hostel and then joined an excursion to historic sites near Sighisoara. The Eye Tour was led by a Dutch couple who had spent their summer vacation in Romania for the last 10 years. They decided to purchase a cottage and started their own tour business. The tour wasn't cheap, 100 lei, but I didn't have to worry about transportation, plus the guides knew everything.
We stopped at Biertan to see the largest fortified church in this region, a UNESCO designated site. This 15th century church was the only fortified church in the whole region. It is still open and holds infrequent religious service. It has a large organ, its most famous design is a wooden door with 19 locks. From the outside, it looks as though there is only one lock. This lock won first prize in the 1900 Paris World Exposition.
From Biertan, we went to a sheep farm. Local shepherds still herd their sheep in the traditional way. Most of them wear bow hats. We saw how shepherd dogs move sheep skillfully. The shepherds demonstrated the milking of the sheep (sheep milk is used to produce cheese, which we sampled). Through translation, the shepherds were interested in knowing more about me. I was the first visitor they had ever seen from Asia. They suggested I stay there longer as an “intern shepherd.” Thanks, but no.
Although most villages were established by Saxon Germans during the medieval time, currently they are populated with ethnic Romanians and Gypsies. Many Saxons emigrated to Germany in the 1990s after the Romanian communist regime collapsed. The Saxon population has almost been depleted in the past 15 years.
This region did not feel Romanian. From the building styles and the churches, it looked more German. While the majority of Romanians are East Orthodox Christians, most churches I saw were Lutheran (the denomination most Saxons belong to). The red-tiled roofs in this region resembled those I saw in towns along Romantisch Strasse (Romatic Road) in Germany years ago.
In many ways, Transylvania of the “Siebenbuergen” felt more like a dislocated part of Germany. The idea of visiting an unauthentic Romania made me regret my decision. I kept thinking that if I had entered Romania from Ukraine, I would have been in Moldavia (instead of Transylvania). South Bucovina in Moldavia is known for its Orthodox painted monasteries. Would it feel more authentically Romanian there?
No place in Transylvania is more German than the city of Sibiu (German name: Hermannstadt, or Hermann’s town). I even read that their current mayor, Johannis Klaus, is German descent. Lonely Planet states “the city once again under German leadership". Sibiu will be the cultural capital of Europe in 2007, coinciding with Romania's entry into the European Union. There was renovation and reconstruction work going on everywhere. Work around the three interlocking squares (Piata Mare, Piata Mirca, Piata Huetmain) were almost completed, though.
Many houses in Sibiu sport eyeball-looking windows popping out of their red-titled roofs – sort of spooky and made me feel as though somebody was watching me. The city is considered the most pleasant in Romania. Many people speak English, the German legacy remains.
Its history makes Transylvania a fascinating region. Beyond the myth of Dracula, werewolves and other horror fiction figures, real Transylvania is a multicultural melting pot with both modern and traditional lifestyles. Romanians, Hungarians, Germans and Gypsies influence this land, under the backdrop of the magnificent Carpathian mountains.
Saricie Kuo is a college professor and public health researcher from Taiwan. He is also a part time novelist and film critic. He took most of 2006 off from his career, traveled in Europe and South America. He made a wish when he was 18 – to visit more than 100 countries before he turned 40. Currently in his mid-30s, Mr. Kuo is glad he has only 10 countries left to reach his goal.