Medieval Villages walk, Romania (11 to 17 July 2019)

This was a diverse six day hike through forest and farmlands in central Transylvania.  For three days we walked between traditional ethnic Romanian villages, following which we spent three days meandering through Saxon Land, the home of a unique, traditional German-speaking population who lived here in a virtually closed community for 800 years, leaving only in 1990.  

Sibiel to Orlat:  Sibiel is a typical small Romanian village of tidy houses and a few larger civic buildings.  Life proceeds at a slow pace.

Tourists come to visit the Zosim Oancea Glass Icon Museum housed in a local 18th century church and its hall. 

The art of painting glass icons developed in central Transylvania in the mid 18th century, blending the Byzantine tradition of icons with western painting techniques.  Images were painted in reverse on the back of a glass plate and decorated with gold leaf decoration glued down using a mix of egg white and garlic.  The glass was then placed in a wooden frame and the image is viewed through the glass, which acts as a protection.  

They proved to be immensely popular and at one time almost every house in the region would have had at least one.  A local priest, recognising their uniqueness, began collecting them in 1969 and the museum now holds more than 700 icons dating from the 1700s to present times, the largest such collection in Transylvania.  

Leaving Sibiel we walked via country lanes to the next village, Fintinelle, and then on a cart track heading into the forest.  Horses and carts are still a common means of transport here.

It was a beautiful day and most of the walk was through the forest and sheep fields.  At one point we were surrounded by sheep dogs keen to make sure we meant the sheep no harm, but the shepherd appeared and despatched them back to the flocks.

Then we followed a stream on a gentle downward trail until reaching Orlat, another tidy little village.

Paltinas to Rasinari:  We were dropped at the bottom of the Paltinas ski lift and hiked uphill under the lift which unfortunately doesn’t operate in the summer!  From the top, the views were great.  

Through the forest, we passed a belvedere point and several shrines and memorials.

The countryside was very green and once again there were flocks of sheep.  As we reached each high point, there were expansive views.

Then again dropping into a valley, we passed dairy farms and reached the village of Rasinari.

Rasinari to Sibiu:  We were picked up in Rasinari and dropped at the ASTRA National Museum Complex, Europe’s largest open-air ethnographic museum.  There are over 400 architectural monuments here, transported from all parts of Romania or constructed on site as replicas, reflecting the different regions and ethnographies of the country.

The museum hosts festivals through the summer.  At the time of our visit a lantern festival was on.  Temporary lantern installations dotted the grounds, looking cute but somewhat incongruous given the context.

There was a huge cook-off underway.  Finals of Masterchef Romania, maybe?

After roaming around the complex we headed toward Sibiu, the main town for the region and a major tourist drawcard. 

A walled city was built here by the Saxons, and for most of the 1700s Sibiu was the seat of the Austrian governors of Transylvania.  It still has a glorious city centre thanks to this period.

Although some of the restorations were a bit, umm, questionable.  

One of the distinctive architectural features of buildings in Sibiu are these attic windows that look like sleepy eyes.  

Venice has the Bridge of Sighs, and Sibiu has the Bridge of Lies.  Built in 1859, there are two stories as to how it got its nickname.  One is that tricky merchants around here gave the area a bad reputation.  The other is that young lovers met and swore their undying affection/virginity and the bridge would creak if they were lying.  

Reichesdorf to Biertan: After a night in Sibiu we headed to the nearby area known as Saxon Land.  

In 1123 Hungarian King Geza II (no, we didn’t make that up) invited Saxons from western Germany to settle here.  In the 15th and 16th century, in response to the threat of Ottoman invasion, many of the villlages erected protective city walls and fortified churches which seem to have doubled as places of worship, lookout towers and defensive bastions.  

Over the centuries, the descendants of the settlers retained their distinctive Germanic cultural identity, spoke a high German similar to ancient Luxembourgish, and generally considered themselves Saxon or German.   There was little intermingling with locals, since the lands they settled were generally unoccupied when they came.  

In the six months following the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in 1989, 500,000 of them ‘returned’ to Germany, a country most had never seen.  Indeed, it had been many generations since any had.  In the seven towns and 250 villages of Saxon Land, more than 90% of the German-speaking population left.  The exodus was one of the largest ethnic migrations in modern European history, and left a landscape of abandoned villages the size of Wales, yet attracted little international attention.  

Many of the abandoned villages fell into decay, or became the domain of squatters, mainly Roma, who had no shared history or affinity with the German traditions still to be seen in the houses, churches and farms left behind. 

In the last couple of decades, however, there has been an increasing awareness of the unique historical and cultural value of the villages and, in particular, the fortified churches.  The EU has contributed funds for infrastructure to improve the lot of the current inhabitants, UNESCO has listed a number of the churches, and various trusts have been created to restore historic buildings and/or renovate typical village houses for use as lodgings for travellers.  

Our walk started in Riechesdorf, where the church apparently houses a magnificent Baroque organ from 1775.  It was locked up so we couldn’t look inside.

We headed out of the village and along country lanes.  The weather fairy abandoned us and it was raining heavily.  We didn’t mind the rain that much, but it turned the lanes to a squelching, sucking mud bog which made the walking perilous and slow.   

By the time we reached the next village, Atel, in the late morning, the rain had cleared.  The track was less boggy and more like solid wet clay.  Great for sliding, not so great for walking.  

After Atel, our walking notes directed us off the main track which skirted the hills, onto a secondary path apparently going up and over.  The path, like many on this walk, quickly became overgrown and indistinct.  Clearly no one has walked it in a while.  Once on the other side it was clear we had not emerged where we should have.  We cut back through and did a fair bit of bush bashing.  There was no more rain but we were drenched from ploughing along ‘tracks’ with shoulder height overgrowth.  Eventually we re-joined a track which our GPS indicated would take us to the next village, where we emerged muddied and drenched.  

A lovely afternoon unfolded.  

And then we reached Biertan, whose historic centre and fortified church are UNESCO listed.   Built in late Gothic style, it is ringed by concentric stone walls and towers.  It is one of the largest of the fortified churches in the region, with a triple nave and well preserved Renaissance decorations.  

It’s got a few quirky items of interest as well.  The door to the sacristy has this magnificent lock, comprising 19 locking mechanisms all activated by a single key.  Profoundly innovative for its time, it was exhibited at the Paris World Expo in 1900.   

The church complex also includes a small bastion in which couples seeking a divorce would be required to live for two weeks to try and resolve their differences.  The single room contained one bed, one chair and one set of cutlery.  It sounds like ‘survival of the fittest’ but local folklore states that it drove couples to co-operate and compromise so successfully that in over 300 years of use, only one couple went through with a divorce after emerging.

Biertan to Malmkrog:  We climbed into the hills behind Biertan on a track overgrown with waist high nettles.  A great start.

But once we cleared the trees there was a magnificent view back over the fortified church and village.

The track wound through the hills and down to another tiny village with an oversized church, Copsa Mare.

We found a perfect spot for a picnic lunch.

Then fields with wildflowers.

And eventually to the village of Malmkrog where a number of farm houses have been renovated by a charitable trust whose charter is to conserve and regenerate villages and communes in this part of Transylvania.   We stayed in one and a local lady came and cooked us a traditional dinner.  We had the place to ourselves for the night and she returned next day to cook us breakfast.

Malmkrog to Sighasoara:  We were driven to the village of Cris, where Bethlen Castle is currently being restored.  Built in the 15th century, the castle was continuously owned by the wealthy Bethlen family who lived there until after WW1.  They were forced to abandon it, but since the fall of communism, the family was able to regain the building.  They have lent it to a charitable foundation on condition it be renovated.  The work will be ongoing for many years.  

Leaving the village we headed up into the hills once again, with a mix of farms and forests, eventually sighting the village of Stejareni.   

Past Stejareni, the path entered the forest and rose up to the Briete Ancient Oak Reserve.  Briete means barrier or width, and the reserve is a plateau of 133 hectares of oak trees, some 800 years old with a trunk diameter of between 400 and 600 centimetres..  The walk through the forest was flat and calm and the path was soft with fallen leaves.  Lovely.  

On the edge of the forest we passed picnic grounds and continued on down into Sighasoara.  Sighasoara’s citadel draws a big tourist crowd, and for good reason. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, 14 towers and 5 artillery bastions were built, connected by a massive defensive wall, atop the highest point in town. It’s all cobblestone streets with limited vehicular access, filled with small shops, bars and restaurants, and a beautiful 14th century clock tower.

You can visit the house where Vlad Tepes – the real one, aka Vlad the Impaler – was born in 1431.  Neither the fact that the original house was destroyed and completely rebuilt long afterwards, or that the building is now a restaurant, stops the proprietor from charging for a look at the upstairs room billed as the ‘birthplace of Vlad Dracul’.

Wrap up:  The scenery on this walk was not as spectacular as our walk in the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria, but there was an interesting opportunity to observe village life.   Except in Sibiu and Sighasoara, we stayed in restored village houses where the owners provide a hearty, local dinner with home made wine and/or palinka, as well as a good breakfast.  The food was simple but tasty and seeing these old homes and the traditional lifestyle of families was really interesting.

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