I wake up nice and early, hoping for a chance to go for a bit of a walk around town before we get started for the day.
As you may well have gathered by now, Viscri is a special place. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Prince Charles loved it so much, he bought number 63. Once belonging to the wealthiest family in the village, the home was in a very bad state of disrepair when it was purchased in 2002 through Charles’ foundation, the Mihai Eminescu Trust. It’s now an authentic Saxon guest house (almost exactly like the one we are staying in) and you too can stay here (check out http://www.experiencetransylvania.ro for more info). He apparently visits every summer and goes riding in the surrounding hills.
“Do not change anything, keep and love this place as it is”, he said.
Under the auspices of the Trust, he has started to renovate the Saxon buildings, as well as supporting the revival of traditional Romanian trades. The role of the trust is to conserve and generate the villages and communes of Maramures and Transylvania. There is another guest house in Malancrav not too far away.
It’s a lovely time to take a walk, so I’m not the only one that is up and about. Being awake early means you get to see the village awakening for the day.
As I approach our guest house, I note that it’s time for our sheep to go off to pasture. They all file out of their pen and out the front gate of the house, bounding down the street like woolly puppy dogs, following their caretaker. I love this place.
Marco is keen to take whoever is up for it, for a walk to see a local tiler. Most of us immediately think decorative tiles, but rather, we will see how to make roof tiles. We stroll through the quaint little streets and out the end of town, before heading up a rutted soil track and onto a valley.
It’s a bit of a hike but its beautiful scenery. Hops grows in the distance in one direction, some sheep and their shepherd abound in another and from the top of the valley we can see the town below us.
After a little while, we arrive at the tile maker’s property. She doesn’t appear to be home, so Marco begins to explain a little to us. It’s one of the projects supported by Prince Charles foundation as it turns out. Not long into his conversation, the family arrives home from town.
The lady of the house leads us down to her mud pit and explains step by step how she and her husband create the tiles. It’s hard work and some people in the village are jealous of the opportunity they have been given to run this business. Small towns obviously have their problems and prejudices, no matter where they are.
We wave goodbye and head back to town in another direction. If the journey here was a hike up the hill, the journey back is a balancing act down the hill. I’d never thought much of old Charlie, but after the last twenty four hours I have developed a lot of respect for his work in this region. I was a little curious as to why he was so enamoured of Romania, and I found my answer. He is, apparently, a descendent of Vlad the Impaler!
As throughout Romania so far, fruit trees litter the scenery wherever you are – on the streets or our in the countryside and you are generally encouraged to just grab some along the way. Today there is plum and apple trees lining the hillside, so Marco pulls little handfuls off to hand around to us as we trample through the mud.
It’s time to leave this quaint little village now. I wish we had one more night to spend here – it’s been such a lovely grounding experience – no internet, no TV, just rural life all around you. But Brasov awaits us, so we board our minibus once more and get back on the road.
We drive for about an hour and a half before we reach the town of Brasov with its population of less than 300,000. Again, it was a Saxon settled town and features a walled citadel. It was the crossroads of many important trade routes that linked Europe with the Ottoman Empire and the Saxon’s grew quite wealthy off this.
It’s also famous for a few other things.
Remember the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin? The town of Hamelin is overrun by rats so they call in a magical man with a flute to rid them of the plague. The rats disappear but the town reneges on its agreement to pay the piper, to which he responds by also removing 130 of the town’s children through a cave, never to be seen again. For a long time, the fairytale was believed to have been a reference to the death of the town’s children from the Bubonic Plague (caused by the rat infestations) and a thinly veiled cautionary tale of why you should never renege on a promise. However, there are other versions of the story, and one of them sees the children settling in Transylvania. And Brasov (in Transylvania) is reputedly where the children emerged from the cave.
The second would be the massive Hollywood style sign perched high atop Tampa Mountain. But why? Well back in the 1950’s, the town of Brasov actually changed its name to something else – Orasul Stalin or Stalin City. The workers of Brasov thought they deserved this honour because they had exceeded their mandated production quotas. The wish was granted and to commemorate the occasion, the name STALIN was spelt out across the mountain using darker coloured leaves.
At the end of the 50’s, the town was renamed Brasov and all the darker coloured trees were chopped down. Details on when and why the new sign was erected in the Hollywood style are hard to find. You can take a cable car up to the top to get a close and personal view, but our time here is very limited and there’s something else I want to see.
Another is that it’s a good place from which to see Bran Castle, better known as Dracula’s Castle. At 60m tall, it is spectacular, but it’s best seen from afar like most things of size. Still, some of us are keen for a closer look. But that will need to wait.
We take a quick walk around the town with Marco pointing out a number of important sites. The main square, off which our hotel is located, is quaint and full of restaurants on one side, with an art market set up in the middle.
The main attraction is the gothic Black Church. The Black Church is a protestant church, completed in 1477 and it took its name from its fire-blackened walls after a fire took hold in 1689. The original statues from the exterior are now inside, along with some 120 Turkish rugs which hang from its balconies. Worshippers at the church drop coins through the wooden grates in the floor and hope for the best. If you know where to look, there are scrape marks outside the church, which some locals swear are from soldiers’ sharpened swords from the past centuries.
For those of us who can’t resist, Marco has arranged for a guide to take us to Bran Castle. Claudia is very bubbly and eager to show us Bran. Six of us jump in the back of a minivan with a new driver and off we go, Claudia chatting excitedly as we go. We are a little quiet after our long walk this morning, our travel here and rushed tour of the city and I feel a little sorry for her because she now thinks she is chatting too much.
The queue outside Bran is long, but it’s not a bad queue says Claudia. It’s usually a lot longer. We don’t have to worry through because with Claudia by our sides we get jump the queue access. Of course once we get inside the castle it is busy, but as we have a limited amount of time here, we are directed to particular rooms of the castle where Claudia explains about Vlad Tepes and something else that scared many Transylvanian’s – the strigoi.
Romanian legend has it that the strigoi are the evil souls of the dead that turn into ghosts and haunt the countryside. They are not born, they are created by one strigoi turning a soul into another strigoi by sucking the blood out of them until they are dead. Hence this is where the story of vampires and Dracula began.
So how did it become know as Dracula’s Castle? Bram Stoker’s character, Dracula, is a Transylvanian Count with a castle located high above a valley perched on a rock with a flowing river below in the Principality of Transylvania. But Bram Stoker himself never visited Romania. It’s just that his imaginary depiction of the castle from his first edition of the novel so resembled Bran Castle rather than any of the others in Romania.
Dracula’s character is often confused with that of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), sometimes known as Vlad Dracul, who was a Walachian Prince. Dracula as he is perceived today is a fictitious character whose name is derived from Vlad Tepes who was depicted by some historians of that time as a blood-thirsty ruthless ruler (it was said that he impaled so many people on a hill near Brasov that it resembled a forest, so who knows, they could be entitled to that opinion!). Vlad did actually spend a few nights in Bran Castle on his flight from the Turks in 1462 so I guess that’s where it all got confused. The moral of this story is Vlad Tepes – real. Dracula – not real.
Or is he…..?
PS. If you want a great guide for your Transylvanian holiday, you can arrange for Claudia to guide you around – head to The Transylvanian for more information.