Traveling to Romania

History, Nature, Places, People.

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Southern Transylvania – scenic landscape and living Saxon heritage

The landscape presents remarkable historical characteristics: fortified churches, authentic villages and varied traditional agriculture in equilibrium a wealth of wild flora and fauna. This type of countryside has been lost almost everywhere else in Europe.

(…)Transylvania is an agricultural treasure because it combines a wealth of wild fauna with the natural foods and quality produce of the local area. I believe that a place such as Transylvania could be an example for the whole world for the provision of ecological and healthy products.

Prince Charles, Prince of Wales


Romania’s significant German (Saxon) heritage is obvious in Southern Transylvania, home to hundreds of well-preserved Saxon towns and villages. Saxons came to Transylvania during the mid 1100s from the Rhine and Moselle Rivers regions. Highly respected for their skill and talent the Saxons succeeded in gaining administrative autonomy, almost unmatched in the entire feudal Europe of absolute monarchies. The result of almost nine centuries of existence of the Saxon (German) community in Southern Transylvania is a cultural and architectural heritage, unique in Europe. Transylvania is home to hundreds of towns and fortified churches built between the 13th and 15th centuries by Saxons.

This region, where they have lived for more then 800 years represents one of Europe’s last medieval landscapes, with probably the most extensive flower-rich grasslands remaining in lowland Europe, essentially unchanged for hundreds of years, in which low intensity agriculture coexists with an abundance of flora and fauna. The landscape still presents a medieval land-use pattern –forested ridges and riverbed, pasture and hay meadows on gentler slopes and terraces, arable land with smaller meadows on the flat valley bottoms near villages. This idyllic painting is completed by an astonishing diversity of wildflowers, and the continent’s richest large carnivore population of bears, wolves and lynxes.

Despite living in a country where the majority of the population consisted of ethnic Hungarians or Romanians, the Transylvanian Saxons were able to preserve their language and their customs intact throughout the centuries. Their formidable ethnic solidarity is vividly illustrated by their settlements, which remained resistant to external influences.

The towns of Sibiu, Sighisoara and Brasov form a triangle containing the greatest concentration of fortified churches in all of Europe, seven of them being inscribed in UNESCO list.

Saxons brought the habit of planned settlements in Transylvania. Their widespread and small villages had homesteads lined up on two rows along one street or square.

Although they have been inhabited, and, therefore, have evolved under the impact of the specific social and economic mutations, the density of the buildings that have a real ethnographic, historic and artistic value give the measure not only of the formal authenticity, but also of the historic substance and the architectural outlook.

Over the last centuries, the villages have preserved almost unaltered the original topographical structure of the site (street network, plot system). The design of these sites – regular street network, with compact fronts alternating the façades and the high surrounding walls, located close to the church placed in the middle – contributes to the definition of the cultural pattern of Transylvania.

The big settlements like Sibiu, Sighisoara or Brasov represents some of Europe’s best preserved medieval towns.

Sibiu offers the traveler an unforgettable trip through space – its narrow streets, commu­nicating courtyards, stone pavements – and time – in a medieval workshop-town, with hundreds of internal regulations. The Old town is divided into two parts: the Upper Town, home to most of Sibiu’s historic sites and several squares, then the Lower Town, lined with colorful houses on cobblestone streets and bounded by imposing city walls and defense towers. The Great Square had been once the place where fairs, festivities, trials and executions used to be held and where the town’s rich men lived. Worth to mention is also the Little Square, a former trade market – all buildings comprised here having arched columns at the ground floor, then the Huet Square with the majestic Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral (1520) in the middle of it. The cultural and artistic life from Sibiu was very vivid during the Middle Age, the first theater (1788) from Romania and the first museum from Central East Europe (Bruckenthal – 1817) being built here.

Another UNESCO World Heritage, Sighisoara represents the last European medieval citadel that is still inhabited. Although the region was inhabited since ancient time, the beauty of this medieval site comes from the Saxon settlers. The attractions include the Clock Tower (city landmark, 1556), the house were Vlad Tepes (Dracula) was born, the Church on the Hill (1520) with its 500 years old frescoes, the Church of the Dominican Monastery, known for its Transylvanian Renaissance carved altarpiece, baroque painted pulpit, Oriental carpets and 17th century organ.

Placed in the SE corner of Transylvania at the Carpathian foothills, Brasov provides a mix of mountain scenery with medieval history and architecture. The old town is a combination of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance, among the most attractive buildings mentioned here being the Council Square with the former Town Hall (1420), the St. Nicholas Church (1495) or the Black Church (1383-1477) – the largest Gothic church east of Vienna and the most important Lutheran Saxon’s place of worship from Brasov.

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Maramures – customs and traditions

Land of wooden churches, mythological richness, impressive landscapes and very ancient customs, Maramures has carefully maintained the culture, traditions, and lifestyle of a medieval peasant past. With its strong rural character it attracts people to its villages, traditions and wonderful costumes, preserved here as nowhere else in Romania.

Named “Boldly Old World”, Maramures was included in National Geographic Traveler’s best trips 2015.

“…In the historic Land of Maramureș, the hills are alive with ways long forgotten elsewhere in Europe. “My cows don’t like grass that is cut with a machine,” Ion Pop says while harvesting his meadow near the village of Botiza. “They prefer the clean taste of handcut.”

The splendor is not just in the grass. In this remote northwest corner of Romania 300 miles from Bucharest, the schedule is set by the seasons, the weather, and tradition. In each of the five valleys, with their meandering rivers and haystack-dotted fields, life plays out as it has for hundreds of years—though one recent change is telling. Rather than asphalting roads that are mainly used by horse and carriage, Maramureș has newly upgraded its bike trails—pathways to experience the region at the pace it deserves.

Maramureș is a wooden world. The farm tools are made of wood, and wooden gates, chiseled with century-old motifs, form the glorious entrances to modest yards around wooden, steep-roofed houses. UNESCO-designated churches from the 17th and 18th centuries tell stories of faith and glory, saints and sinners, crime and punishment, through still vivid paintings on their wooden walls.

Many of the colorful wooden crosses at the Merry Cemetery in the village of Săpânța are inscribed with lighthearted epitaphs written in verse. They laugh in the face of death—and hence celebrate immortality. — Pancras Dijk, National Geograhic Traveler”

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Calusarii – the ritual dance

The Calusari dance is considered one of the fastest and most spectacular dances in the world and was included by UNESCO on the list of non material masterpieces of the universal culture.

The tradition of the Calusari comes from the ancient times of Dacia and even today still keeps its pagan core. Once upon a time, Calusarii were priests of a solar cult. Lead by a great priest, their dances were much more then an initiation, were an exorcism. The great priest was the one that was asking the god for help while leading the army of the Calusari in their war with the evil spirits that took over the villages. More so, they used to take a vow of silence, the only one being allowed to talk being the leader who at varied times was requesting them to release certain war calls.

The Calusari are described as groups of odd numbered men, sworn to stay together in celibacy and ritual dancing for a period of nine years. Their secrets are to be never known. They are feared warriors who fight the “iele” (“them,” magical dancing maiden fairies). They have to stay together for the sworn period to remain invulnerable and invested with the supernatural powers and if they break away from the group they would fall prey to the iele. But together, they can heal those possessed by evil spirits by performing their dancing and rituals around them.

FolkDanceAccording with UNESCO: ‘Performed in the Olt region of southern Romania, the Căluş ritual dance also formed part of the cultural heritage of the Vlachs of Bulgaria and Serbia. Although the oldest documented music used in this dance dates from the seventeenth century, the ritual probably derived from ancient purification and fertility rites using the symbol of the horse, which was worshiped as an embodiment of the sun. The ritual’s name derives from the Căluş, the wooden part of the horse’s bridle.

The Căluş ritual features a series of games, skits, songs and dances, and was enacted by all-male Căluşari dancers to the accompaniment of two violins and an accordion. Young men used to be initiated into the ritual by a vataf (master) who had inherited the knowledge of descântece (magic charms) and the dance steps from his predecessor. Groups of Căluşari dancers, Calusariisporting colorful hats, embroidered shirts and trousers adorned with small jingling bells, perform complex dances, which combine stamping, clicking of the heels, leaping and swinging of the legs.

The costumes worn by the Calusari are white, decorated with colorful sticks, hand made hankies, while the hats have beads and colored ribbons. The most important instrument is the flag, a four-five meters long stick on top of which are tied plants as garlic and wormwood, salt and white and red ribbons, sacred colors in the Dacian vision who connect the dance to the ancient rituals of Zamolxe.

The dance of the Calusari seems to be one of the oldest and most complex of the folk dances of Romania. The men who wished to enter the group of the Calusari came together outside the village, on the shore of a water, where, in a ritual, sworn to respect the rules of the group, including sexual abstinence. For ten days they live in a sacred time and space. During the entire period they wear a specific costume with bells on the legs, a stick, and sleep under churches to be protected by attacks from the Iele. The ceremony included magical practices and invocations, dances and ritual acts executed by the strictly organized group of men. After the ceremonial dances are finished at the end of the ten days, the men meet in the village, greet each other like after a long absence and life goes back to normal.
The dance of the Calusari, in the popular tradition, meets different functions including the magical transfer of the divine fertility through spells during the dance over salt for animals and a bowl with seeds for sowing in the fields. Other benefits were of speeding up the marriage and fertility of the young women who were admitted into the end dance, healing of the sick and the sending away of the Iele (malefic fairies) through the practice of warrior acts and the used of magical plants during the dance.

According to tradition, groups of dancing and chanting Căluşari, who were thought to be endowed with magical, healing powers, went from house to house, promising good health and prosperity to villagers.

Until today, Căluşari meet to celebrate their dancing and musical prowess on Whit Sunday. Testifying the rich cultural diversity of Romania, the Căluş ritual is also widely promoted at folklore festivals.