Why Romania?

Why Romania?

All our friends asked this question.  And my wife, Fran, and I had no good answer as to why we had chosen this country for a vacation.
We knew Romania possessed the environmentally rich Danube River delta and was ethnically diverse, having been overrun and settled by Hungarians, Germans, Gypsies, Turks, and dozens of others.

However, the most important reason was that we viewed Romania as part of an “old Europe” that had not yet been transformed into the homogenized “Western culture” that is most of Europe today.

We were not disappointed.

We opted to hire a young startup company, Romania-To-Go, to arrange a private 16-day tour and provide a personal guide named Chris.
Touring with Chris was like being guided by a 22-year-old nephew.  His awareness of American culture and his use of the English language — without a trace of any accent — were indistinguishable from an American 22-year-old.  He told us he learned it all from American TV!
The Black Sea was our first destination, driving from Bucharest past vast fields of corn and other grain as far as your eyes could see.
One day we toured the hidden channels and “lakes” of the Danube delta in a small skiff piloted by a seasoned waterman.  We spooked huge pelicans, glided past wild swans, found eagles, and saw thousands of other water birds massed on the open bodies of water.

The tour ended with lunch featuring the regional specialty of boiled fish and potatoes, preceded by mashed garlic and fish heads.  Yummy!
From there we drove northwestward toward the Carpathian Mountains, medieval history, and German culture.

The eastern Carpathians and their Transylvanian extension form a large hook and separate the center of Romania from its flat southern and eastern regions.

This mountain wall was critical to Western Europe by protecting its southeastern flank from invasions of armed warriors and immigrating peoples from central Asia.  A 12th-century Hungarian king populated Transylvania with out-of-work German crusaders (the Teutonic Knights) and thousands of skilled German farmers, merchants, and stone masons.

They constructed walled cities and villages, grew crops in the fine farmland, and built a network of roads and trading stations.
On the way we visited Sinaia, a late 19th-century spa town where Romanian King Carol I built his summer home, Peles Castle, now a major tourist attraction.

The next morning we crossed into Transylvania and drove to 14th-century Bran Castle, built to guard a major road into Transylvania.  Today Bran Castle is known as “Dracula’s Castle” in spite of the fact that Bram Stoker’s fictional Dracula had nothing to do with it.  But historical fact rarely trumps a good legend for tourists, so the area is covered with signs advertising “Vampire Camping,” “Vampire Tattoos,” and the like.

We spent the next three nights in the three major fortified cities built by early German immigrants:  Brasov, Sibiu, and Sighisoara.
Protected by their natural and manmade walls, they became large and prosperous medieval trading centers, which is evidenced by their large Gothic churches, many medieval houses and other buildings, and walls and towers still preserved in the midst of the modern cities they are today.

The starkness of those early churches, turned Lutheran during the Reformation, contrasts dramatically to the ornate churches of the Romanian Orthodox.

Of course, not every medieval community had the re­sources to surround itself with large, massive walls and towers.  The solution of smaller towns created one of the more interesting sights in Transylvania — the fortified church.

The best of these are located in the villages of Biertan and Prejmer.  Each consists of a Gothic church with plain exterior walls pierced only by small, high windows.  The churches were surrounded by thick, high walls with battlements and storehouses for supplies needed for locals to withstand long sieges.

As we drove north from Sighisoara through areas inhabited by persons with Hungarian and Gypsy backgrounds, the focus on medieval history changed to a focus on contemporary Romanian life — that is, if you can describe a culture that relies on 17th- and 18th-century farming practices as “contemporary.”

Maremures, an area of rolling green hills adjacent to the Ukrainian border, was a major reason for visiting Romania.  Imagine, if you can, a seemingly prosperous farming community where all members of each family plant seed by hand, cut hay using scythes, rake the hayfield by hand, and then pitchfork the hay into large mounds supported by a tall post.
Families also harvest bushel upon bushel of apples and plums, most of which is distilled into high-spirited brandy.  Most transportation is by heavy wooden open wagons pulled by a healthy-looking horse.

We spent two nights at the home of one such family, which had traded its agricultural ways — except for brandy-making and raising chickens and turkeys in the backyard — for the more remunerative occupation of running a three-room B&B and providing home-cooked meals for tourists.

Maremures is known for its farming traditions, but we soon discovered its wonderfully creative — and quirky — local art traditions and its many active and prosperous Romanian Orthodox monasteries and convents.

We met Teoader Barsan, a prominent local woodcarver whose carved religious shrines, doorways, house trim, and large gates line highways and villages throughout Maremures.  His work also has been featured by Smithsonian exhibitions in the United States.  In another example of his handicraft, the graves at one church were marked by unique carved and decorative wood plaques that described and told a funny story about the deceased.

Our last stop before heading back to Bucharest was Bucovina, famous for its 15th- and 16th-century painted churches.

While not uncommon for ancient Orthodox churches to have scenes of biblical and apocryphal events painted on their interior walls for the benefit of the illiterate faithful, the painted churches of Bucovina have their exterior walls painted with such scenes, as well.

So, again, why Romania?  Why not, indeed!

(Lynn Morehous retired from TVA in 1999 as Assistant General Counsel for Legislation, Budget, & Congressional Relations in the Office of the General Counsel in Knoxville.)