July 21. I drove to Sovata on the way to Odorheiu Secuiesc. Sovata had been recommended to me, though I didn’t know why. I drove through really pretty mountains on the way, much prettier than my destination. In Sovata I decided to walk through the old town and take photos of the wooden entrance gates distinctive to this part of Romania. Each town had its own unique design. The tradition had been brought by German Saxons who had resettled in Transylvania centuries before at the behest of Hungarian nobles wanting to repopulate the region after wars and plagues. I decided to try to find what made Sovata so special, and drove up toward the forested hills. I ended up on a very crowded main street lined with old Hungarian villas, fast food and fancy restaurants, popcorn stands, more people than Las Vegas, and no place to park. So I decided to keep going, missing the lakes that made this place what it was. I ended up asking the family i visited in Odorheiu Secuiesc if we could go back to walk around the lakes.
So why Odorheiu Secuiesc? Remember the phone call I’d made the night before? I got a call in the morning from a young woman who asked me whether I’d called. She explained that it was her uncle’s place, a kind of fishing lake with simple cabins. She told me to come to her house, where we could go to the lake and look at the accommodations. She didn’t think I’d find it on my own. I think she was right. So I left Sovata, disappointed that the places I’d been most encouraged to visit were deluged with tourists and rather dirty. I passed a very touristy town that turned out to host a salt mine, which I ended up visiting some days later. I reached Odorheiu Secuiesc and found the house in question. Krisztina was a lovely young woman who had recently returned from two years living in the US with a family in Utah. She had graduated from high school there and was very fluent in English. Her mother, Kata, was extremely hospitable, serving me lemonade and graciously listening to us talk. She is Hungarian by birth, and speaks Hungarian and Romanian fluently. I was humbled being surrounded by such polyglots. Krisztina’s brother Andrew was animated and could have lit up the city of New York hooked up to a generator. I spent the next 5 days alternately amused and annoyed, as he was persistent at getting attention, and his antics were sometimes weary-some.
I found out that Krisztina’s parents, and indeed many of the people living in the region, were Seklers, a subgroup of the Hungarian people living mostly in the Székely Land in Romania. A significant population descending from the Székelys of Bukovina lives in Tolna and Baranya counties in Hungary and in certain districts of Vojvodina, Serbia. In 1952, the former province of Mureș, Romania (with the highest concentration of Székely population), was legally designated as the Hungarian Autonomous Region. It was superseded in 1960 by the Mureș-Hungarian Autonomous Region, itself divided in 1968 into three non-autonomous counties, Harghita, Covasna and Mureș. In the Middle Ages, the Székelys, along with the Transylvanian Saxons, played a key role in the defense of the Kingdom of Hungary against the Ottomans in their posture as guards of the eastern border. With the Treaty of Trianon of 1920, Transylvania (including the Székely Land) became part of Romania, and the Székely population was a target of Romanianization efforts. In post-Cold War Romania, where the Székelys form roughly a half of the ethnic Hungarian population, members of the group have been among the most vocal of Hungarians seeking an autonomous Hungarian region in Transylvania. They were estimated to number about 860,000 in the 1970s and are officially recognized as a distinct minority group by the Romanian government.
Over the next five days, I would find out more about these people and the difficulties they still face living in now-Romania. After talking for 2 hours, Krisztina suggested that I could stay with them. I asked what they would charge, and she said nothing. I was taken aback at the generous offer, and attempted to do what I could to pay back their kindness. We went to the fishing lake where her uncle has the fated cabins, and she and her brother played with their 2 and 5 year old cousins. The younger was in the bratty stage of no, so there were lots of tears and tantrums. Finally, Kata returned and took us to the home of a family friend who bakes their own country sourdough bread. I asked to see how it was done, and they showed me their bread oven, located in a summer kitchen outside the house, and the tools they use to make bread. The man’s sons came home from haying, and we watched them pitchfork it from the horse cart into the barn. They had a huge garden and told me with pride that they don’t need to go to the store. They slaughter a pig, which lasts them all winter. I was to find out the effects of pork-flavored refrigeration. The house where I would stay was full of pork from a slaughtered porcine, and everything I stored there smelled of bacon. Not my idea of a desirable condiment. The man’s wife was lovely as well, and she gave me a slice of homemade bread with pork fat smeared on top. Yuck I thought. I ate it, but it wasn’t bad. Probably because it was fresh from the farm.
July 22. I spent the day with Krisztina and Andrew in tow trying to find silicone earplugs. We went to 5 pharmacies, 2 grocery stores, and a DM. No luck. I finally gave up, and washed the car and headed home. I had awoken that morning unable to find my ear plugs, and imagined that I’d left them in a shed in Kismaros, Hungary. There went my guarantee to a good night sleep. I even tried to order them online, only to find that amazon didn’t deliver to Romania. That night, as I sorted through my things, I discovered the transparent earplug case stuck to the bottom of my bag. Hurray! I shared the good news with the family.
July 23. Krisztina wanted to go to the salt mine Salina Praid. On the way, we stopped in Corund where artisanal pottery is still produced by hand, and has been since 1332. Even though it was a Sunday, the small shops were closed. Kata and I walked up a small canyon and past a mineral bath area to the source of an aragonite salt spring. The white crystalline rock sparkled in the sun, and the water tasted supremely salty. The mine in Praid was a let down. I had anticipated the wonders of carved rock salt that I’d seen in Wieliczka, Poland. The Praid mine was simply a huge cavernous space where people did activities like badminton and ropes courses. Above-ground, the place was full of tourists buying food and knick knacks, a kind of Las Vegas ambience. We took a bus to stairs leading down, and entered the huge caverns that had been dug, first by hand and later (to this day) by machine. The focus of the space was the healthy atmosphere that the cave environment provided, especially for people suffering from respiratory problems. Kriszina and Andrew played badminton while I read some information about the history of the mine. After an hour, I was bored. So were they, so we left and headed for Sovata. I’d begged to go there again, as I wanted to see the special salty lakes. On the way, we visited my host family’s friends, where I met Agnes, who had just moved back from Gdansk, Poland after working with special needs folks using music and art therapy. We talked about her experience there, and her work as a guide in the salt mine. I showed her photos of Wieliczka’s amazing carved salt altars and statues, including the salt crystal chandeliers.
We headed to Sovata, and walked around Black, Nut, Red, and Green Lakes, which are helio-thermal and salty lakes. Like Lacu Rošu, geological events in 1875 gave birth to Bear Lake, unique in Europe for its helio-thermal and salty water. People to this day take the water which is claimed to have therapeutic effects for rheumatoid arthritis, peripheral nervous disorders, and post-accidental motor diseases. During the interwar period, Sovata became one of the most fashionable spas in the country, visited several times even by the Romanian Royal Family. That explained the fancy villas and churches that lined the lakeside and main road winding through the pretty resort town. Satisfied that I’d seen them, we headed home, where Andrew played his X box Star Wars game and I went for a sunset walk with Kata.
July 24. I decided to drive to Miercurea Ciuc to see the historical neighborhood of Șumuleu Ciuc, which was a separate commune until 1959. The catholic church that was built by the Franciscan monastery, Mănăstirea Franciscană, is the site of an annual Roman Catholic pilgrimage, when Catholics from all over Hungary and Romania gather there. The monastery was founded in 1442 by John Hunyadi, future governor of Hungary (1446–1452), defender of Hungary against the Ottoman invasion, to commemorate his victory over the Turkish troops at Sibiu. The present church’s construction started in 1802 in late baroque style. The foundation of the old monastery founded by John Hunyadi was used to erect the new building. The church hosts magnificent paintings by Italian and Hungarian painters; the organ, re-built by Johannes Caioni, and the wooden-sculpture figure of the Virgin Mary, known as the Weeping Mary, in the main altar both count for a masterpiece.
Şumuleu Ciuc becŞumuleu Ciuame a pilgrimage site in 1567, when Hungarian king John II Sigismund Zápolya wanted to convert the Székely population of the upper Csík to Protestantism. The Székelys refused to abandon the Catholic faith and resisted. A battle took place on a nearby field, on Saturday before Pentecost 1567, from which the Székelys emerged victorious. The monks saw this as a sign of the care of Virgin Mary, and since then, this event has been commemorated by a pilgrimage when the believers gather on Pentecost every year. Beside its religious importance, the pilgrimage has also become a community event demonstrating spiritual unity of Hungarian people living in and outside the historical region of Transylvania. That was probably the reason that several Hungarian friends recommended that I visit this place.
I walked around the neighborhood after admiring the Mary statue and church, then climbed the hill to the cavalry and the chapel on the hill, Hármashalom-oltár. There was a nice forest there, and a clear dirt road that pilgrims walked from the neighboring village. Descending, I was tempted to fill my water bottles at the spring, but there was a constant stream of water bearers, including a whole van of police. I walked through the old town of Miercurea Ciuc, enjoying the historical buildings that lined the main boulevard of the city center and Mikó Castle, built in a late Renaissance style. The castle houses Csík Székely Museum, a local history musem, but it was closed. The joys of sightseeing on Mondays. I decided to come back the next day to see the ethnographic exhibit on the Seklers, the Hungarians that had settled in this part of Hungary. I headed back over the low pass of the Carpathians into a rain storm, and had a nice sunset walk before heading to bed. I admired the city hall across from the castle which had been built in 1886, originally the county hall of the Hungarian Csík County and the 1904 Courthouse.
July 25. As I’d promised myself, I headed back to Miercurea Ciuc to see the museum housed in Mikó Castle. The original castle was razed in the 17th century on the orders of Ferenc Mikó Hídvégi, the personal advisor of Gabriel Bethlen, then prince of Transylvania. Much of the castle was destroyed in 1661 during the Tatar raids, but it was rebuilt at the beginning of the 18th century and was mainly used as a barrack. As I climbed the stairs, I got a peek of a small skanzen consisting of a few traditional Csíki houses and wooden gates behind the castle. It was off limits so I took photos out the window. The ethnographic exhibit on traditional Sekler life was small, but nice. I watched an interesting film on shepherding, which is still practiced in the mountain regions of Romania. I walked through several exhibits, including one on WWI (in Romanian and Hungarian) and on printing activities engaged by the Franciscan monastery in nearby Şumuleu Ciuc. There were some lovely manuscripts on display. The monks were practiced in book binding as well as printing, and were one of 9 publishing houses in Transylvania for many centuries. It’s interesting to learn how much influence monastics had on information distribution in the form of book creation.
I walked back through the old town, then headed back over the Carpathian pass. I wanted to explore the mountains a bit, so turned off toward Harghita-Băi, a small resort town built around its healing springs. The road was abominable, and I didn’t expect anything at the end of it. To my surprise, there was a whole village of pensions and thermal baths. Rustic, but definitely popular. There’s a ski lift as well, and winter traffic may explain the huge holes in the road. I walked through boggy forests, picking a few berries and getting caught in brambles. The sky was threatening a downpour, so after an hour I headed home, stopping on the way to try to find some traditional ceramics from Corund. Success! The merchant threw in a wooden honey stick even though I only had money for the ceramics. Very kind. I headed back to Krisztina’s home, then decided to walk around the old town of Odorheiu Secuiesc, which is quite historic. It’s lined with imposing edifices from various religious colleges and high schools, churches, and several civic buildings. I headed to the local ice cream place and charged my phone as I ate ice cream. There I met Laszlo, who was on a tour of Transylvania for Hungarians. He lives in Montreal, Canada, and had wanted to make this trip for 10 years. I shared a few nice photos from fortified orthodox churches in northern Romania, and we had a nice chat.
Then I headed home and spent the evening talking with Kata and Krisztina, a pattern which repeated every night. I had meant to get some blog writing done and cull photos, but that wasn’t to be. During our evening talks, Krisztina acted as translator, and I learned a lot about her family’s experience with discrimination as Hungarians in Romania. Staying with them gave me a richer understanding of life in Romania.
July 26. My plan for the day was to write and cull photos. I only managed the latter, spending five hours to delete about 1500 of 19000 images. I tried to pick up my repaired sandals (I think this was the fifth repair), but the shoe place closed promptly at 2pm. I arrived at 2:05pm and found no one there. At 3:30 I headed to a local museum housed in the old Bethlenfalvay home. There was a stereoscopic exhibit on WWI, showing propaganda photos from America, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Luckily there was an English translation, so I was able to understand the intent of the exhibit. Downstairs was an exhibit about the famous Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres. Sadly, the exhibit was only in Romanian and Hungarian. I’d run into this the day before in the Csík Székely Museum’s exhibits on WWI and monastic book printing. It looked interesting, and I wished I could learn about him. I headed to Kováts photo gallery, which features old photographic equipment used by the current owner’s great grandfather. It turns out that some of the images I’d seen at the Bethlenfalvay musem had been lent by Kováts for the WWI exhibit. His great grandfather had taken many poignant photos while stationed in Italy, Hungary, and Poland as a soldier in the Austro Hungarian empire. How times change.
I enjoyed looking at the old chemical baths and dark room equipment, as well as the traditional cameras, bringing back memories of my dad’s darkroom at our house in Sunnyvale and my experimentation with developing my own black and white photos as a senior in high school. To support the gallery, I bought a photo of young shepherds dressed in traditional clothes walking with their backs to the camera at the end of the day. I headed back and had a nice talk with Krisztina and Kata. Kata recommended various places in Romania to visit, especially the Danube Delta. In looking at images of the delta, I came upon a fancy resort called the New Egreta, and it planted a seed. l may stay there yet.
July 27. I planned to leave that morning, but packing, cleaning, and blog writing took longer than expected. I wanted to say a proper goodbye, and Kata was in a work meeting, so I waited for her to be free. They had helped me cook a syrup/jam with the huckleberries I’d bought the day before from a gypsy in Odorheiu Secuiesc. It was messy business, with my hands turning a deep purple. At one point, the juicer exploded, shooting purple pulp all over the kitchen floor and counters. I spent 2o minutes mopping it up, and wondered whether the syrup was worth the trouble. With sadness I bid them farewell. I’d gotten used to spending time with them, and hated to part. Hopefully Krisztina will visit one day, or I will come back.
I headed toward Sighișoara, which was only 40 minutes away, enjoying the countryside along the way. I had a nice walk in the walled city, which was one of the seven fortified cities built by German Saxons in Transylvania. The seven cities were known in German as Siebenbürgen or Septem Castra in Latin and included Bistrița, Sibiu, Cluj-Napoca, Brasov, Medias, Sebes, and Sighișoara. The town was hosting a medieval festival starting Friday evening, and I contemplated sticking around for it. It was a small town, and only took an hour or two to see all the sights. I checked out the large church in the town square, the church on the hill, and the clock tower museum, then walked in the greater city outside the city walls. It was getting dark, and I decided to catch up on writing my blog, so I took up residence on the terrace at the Double Tree Inn, which had a great view of the illuminated old town.
Unfortunately, a very enthusiastic aqua aerobics class was blaring disco at decibels unheard of, and I did my best not to jump out of my chair every time the door opened. At one point, someone left it open, and the whole terrace was awash in ear-splitting inaudible music. I finally left around 10:30pm, hoping to find a rural area outside town to pitch a tent. I drove in one direction and headed up a dirt road only to find that it was lined with houses. Then I headed in another direction and found a small village awash with gypsies walking along the road, and no place to turn off. I ended up sleeping in a neighborhood I’d seen on my walk earlier that day in Sighișoara. I parked on a walking path at first, but got woken up to a group of people peering in, so I moved to a small spot under a tree near the gate of a rich home. I was awoken to a German-speaking man making a 7:30am delivery.