Sign of the times in Sighisoara


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Europe » Romania » Transilvania » Mures » Sighisoara
June 14th 2018
Published: August 9th 2018
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HE SAID...
Today we were travelling south from Vadu Izei to Sighisoara (via Bistrita).

After a wild night of lightning, thunder and heavy rain, a thick impregnable mist shrouded the township of Vadu Izei when we woke at 6am. We dragged our packs downstairs, loaded them into our host’s car and headed to the main homestay house on the other side of town, where breakfast was laid out on a large table. Bread, salami, cheese, frittata, zacusca (eggplant and red pepper spread), tomatoes, tea, coffee and jam (plum, quince and strawberry). It was a feast, and a great start to the day.

After saying goodbye to the host and Mara (the cat), we began our journey south into Transylvania. We slowly wound our way up the mountains that separated Maramures and Transylvania, stopped for a coffee at a small roadside restaurant (Hanul Tentea) with a fantastic view of the mountainous terrain, then ascended on the other side into a lush green valley. Small rural villages dotted the landscape, with houses all built to the same design. We were officially in Transylvania!

We stopped for lunch in Bistrita, a small town about half way been Vadu Izei and Sighisoara. In Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, Jonathan Harker spends a night in Bistrita before continuing on to Count Dracula’s castle, despite warnings from the locals to rethink his journey. We wandered around the small township, picked up a couple of savoury pastries from a little hole-in-the-wall bakery and lunched in a small square outside the town’s enormous but decaying Evangelical Church.

While not quite following Jonathan Harker’s footsteps, we continued our journey through Transylvania, and I was amazed that horse and carts were still being used as a means of transport on Romanian roads. As we drove through the township of Targu Mures, police and ambulances were everywhere, streets were cordoned off, people were being by interviewed and onlookers were all over the place – even on the rooftops of surrounding buildings. We had no idea what had happened, but we surmised that a bank had been robbed and a bomb was involved. I’m not entirely sure how we came to that conclusion, but I do know there was no logic or rational thought in our deductions. However, it sounded dramatic and sensational, and our Romanian driver seemed to think it was OK as an explanation of what was happening around us. Traffic had ground to a standstill and the shrill scream of emergency vehicle sirens filled the air. It took ages to get through the city, but we eventually came out on the other side.

In what had become a daily occurrence, it started raining in the mid-afternoon, but luckily it didn’t last long. By the time we arrived in Sighisoara, the sun was out – and it was hot. We dropped our packs in an old, rambling but very comfortable hotel and headed out for an orientation walk on the cobblestone lanes of this tiny fortified village. We headed straight for the Clock Tower, passing the house where Vlad Tepes was born – the character Bram Stoker apparently based his fictional Count Dracula on. The sun was perfect for photos, so we climbed the wobbly wooden steps to the top of the Clock Tower, which afforded incredible panoramic views of Sighisoara and its surrounding outer suburbs. Evening was starting to fall, so we walked up to the Church on the Hill, but we arrived a little too late – its doors had just closed. We wandered a nearby cemetery (linked to the Church) before navigating a series of narrow cobblestone lanes and alleys on our way back down into the village.

We settled in the main square for a cold drink, as the day had been long and we were exhausted. I tried an international beer brewed locally in Romania (Tuborg), and it was great. After a quick freshen up at the hotel, we made our way across the main square to Casa cu Cerb for dinner. I opted for a haricot bean stew with smoked sausage and traditional pickles, and it was fantastic. Ren ordered duck leg with red cabbage and mashed potatoes, and the duck was amazing. After dinner we headed out of the old village and down into the main township for a few nightcaps, which turned into a very enjoyable evening. We staggered back up into the fortified village, which is surrounded with characteristic medieval towers, and promptly fell asleep.

Having stumbled home in the early hours, we didn’t rise until 7am – much later than we’d anticipated. We grabbed our cameras and headed out into Sighisoara to beat the tourist rush, and we were rewarded with a deserted medieval village. We wandered around in the fine morning rain, capturing the shots we’d been unable to get the day before because of the tourists. We made our way back to the hotel for breakfast at 8am, which was a fairly basic affair – muesli, cordial, tea, toast, cheese and salami. We took our time and grazed over hot tea and toast before heading up to our room to write a few postcards and prepare for our trip to Viscri.

We checked out of our hotel in the late-morning and wandered the streets of Sighisoara for one last time. Tourist hordes had flooded the tiny village, so we had to navigate the crowds. We picked up a blue and white patterned ceramic plate from the house in which Vlad Tepes was born, then headed down into the main township of Sighisoara to post our postcards – aided by a hand drawn map from a friendly shop assistant. We managed to get lost on the way, but with the help of another friendly shop assistant (who called an English-speaking friend who gave directions to Ren over the phone), we finally managed to find the post office.

With the postcards safely on their way to Australia and England, we headed back up into the medieval village and sat in the main square, sipping cold lemonade and elderberry juice while eating apple pie. A car club was exhibiting a number of old Soviet police cars, so the square had been monopolised, but we were still able to people-watch to our hearts content. In the early afternoon we grabbed our packs from the hotel, jumped into a minibus and started our journey towards Viscri.



SHE SAID...
Today was a travel day from Vadu Izei in Maramures to Sighisoara (pronounced sigi-schwara) in Transylvania, by minibus.

I woke at 3am to a loud thunderstorm over the little village of Vadu Izei in Maramures, and the volume of rain that followed was phenomenal. We had a relatively early start that morning, so I resented being woken up, but the rain certainly cooled the room down.

We left Iliana’s homestay and, as usual, we were driven to the main homestay at Ramona’s for breakfast. As with the previous day, breakfast was a lovely spread of bread, cheese, tomatoes, zacusca (red pepper and eggplant dip), salami, sausages and homemade jams (of which quince was my favourite). I had been looking forward to the super fresh creamy fried eggs we’d had the day before, but we were served frittata instead.

We loaded ourselves onto a minibus at 8am and began our long trip south to Transylvania. There had been some talk of a side tour to Salina Turda, a 17th century underground salt mine in the central part of Romania, but Andrew and I voted to go directly to Sighisoara when we realised the mine was now full of neon lighting and hosted a theme park with a Ferris wheel!

It was another dark and rainy day, but the farmers were out in their fields, working with scythes and pitchforks to cut and dry the hay. We started climbing into the mountains, and the view over the cloudy valleys was beautiful. We had a brief but welcome coffee stop at the wooden structure of Hanul Tentea in Romuli, on the border between Maramures and Transylvania. It was perfect to stretch our legs, breathe the fresh country air and lay eyes on the final vistas of Maramures.

As we settled into the drive again, I happened to glance over at Cheryl (who is blessed with a superior olfactory system), and saw her nostrils flare in alarm before she firmly declared that she could smell poo. One of the group had brought a cow dung memento back into the minibus. What made it amusing was the person in question tried to brush it off as ‘just mud’ and started vehemently rubbing her shoe on the floor, which smeared brown stuff all over the place! But Cheryl was having none of it (I seriously love the girl’s no-nonsense approach to life). Once it was established that it certainly wasn’t mud, the driver donned gloves, grabbed tissues and jumped to action!

Accidents happen, but the way it’s dealt with can speak volumes. We were mostly a pretty easy going group, but this was the sort of situation where laughing wouldn’t have gone down well. As I mentioned in the last blog, we had been giving each other silly nicknames… so I was rather tickled when a quiet whisper of ‘we shall call her Shit-on-shoe’ reached my ears at the back of the minibus. 😊

As we moved from Maramures into Transylvania, the landscape changed from very rural to large houses on farm plots, and then into more regional cities. Transylvania is not just stuff of legend and fiction – it really does exist, and it’s Romania’s most famous province. I had read that it was renowned for magnificent gothic castles that dominate horizons, cobblestone laneways that meander through enchanting villages, impressive Saxon fortified constructions, and ancient citadel remnants speckled throughout the region.

Transylvania is ringed by the Carpathian Mountains and is probably best known as the home of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula – its turreted castles and forested mountains is the setting of Stoker’s story, and Count Dracula is thought to be based on Vlad Tepes Dracul III (also known as Vlad the Impaler) who was born in Sighisoara and periodically ruled these parts in the later part of the 15th century. Even though Stoker didn’t set foot in Romania, the locals have really run with the Dracula theme.

The bloodthirsty Vlad the Impaler had a reputation for being among the cruellest and most sadistic rulers in medieval Europe. It’s estimated that he ordered the deaths and dismemberment of more than 50,000 people. Apparently, a document even claims he roasted his enemies and forced women to eat their own children. Sounds like a nice chap! Regardless, he’s revered by the locals for fighting the Ottomans.

Once within Transylvania’s borders, we had a quick lunch stop at the immediately likeable city of Bistrita – with beautifully ornate but somewhat rundown pastel-coloured renaissance buildings. After a near emergency situation was averted by finding a toilet (the coffees at the last stop came back to haunt us), Narelle, Cheryl, Andrew and I walked along the main street lined with cafes, restaurants with street seating and hole-in-the-wall bakeries. After the big meals we’d had at the homestay, all we wanted for lunch was a pastry. With pastries in hand, we walked back to the gardens around the large once-gothic 14th century Evangelical Church (that had been rebuilt after a devastating fire) and sat in the shade of its now-multi-styled whitewashed walls and large tower. The cabbage pastry I had was really delicious, as was the salty cheese one Andrew had. Bistrita was a perfectly beautiful stop for a quick lunch.

Bistrita has a strong connection to Dracula, as the first chapter of the book is a diary entry written in Bistrita by Jonathan Harker (one of the main characters). He references the great fire in the 17th century which damaged the Evangelical Church, and he stays at the fictional Golden Krone Hotel... which obviously didn’t exist back then, but certainly exists now!

The drive on to Sighisoara went quickly. I slept for most of the way, only waking when we’d pass Roma Gypsy villages pointed out by the driver (who was quite derogatory about them) or when we’d crawl through heavy traffic in the cities. The city of Targu Mures was more congested than others, and we realised that half the main avenue had been cordoned off – there was a line of police cars, ambulances, fire trucks and a bomb disposal truck. We had many theories, but never found out what had actually happened.

The amazingly preserved medieval town of Sighisoara is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage site in the heart of Transylvania. It was first settled by the Romans but came into its own under the Saxons in the 12th century. It’s one of seven fortified citadels the Saxon craftsmen built after they were invited to settle in the region to build fortifications and defend the frontier.

Sighisoara is the picturesque, perched-on-a-hill kind of small town that I associate with fairy-tales. We drove through a city gate into the citadel and checked into Hotel Casa Wagner, set in a 16th century historic building on the very pretty main square – Piata Cetatii. The walls of the old hotel were thicker than the width of my body, and the old wooden floors and stairs were extremely creaky. I loved our old-world room with its hobbit-sized wooden door but soaring vaulted ceilings! 😊

We walked around the small but delightful Old Town which twists up a narrow hill that’s surrounded on all sides by fortified walls. Just off the main square, a 64m Clock Tower with a multi-coloured tiled roof is the striking centre piece of the citadel. The town still looks and feels medieval, but in the best possible way.

We walked past a statue of Vlad Tepes Dracul, who was the charming Vlad the Impaler chap I mentioned earlier. The house he was born in around 1430 – Casa Dracul – sits in the tiny Piata Muzeului at the base of the Clock Tower. The house is now a restaurant, but you can pay to visit the bedroom he was born in. We chose not to, but we were in stiches when Cheryl reported back to us that the much publicised ‘surprise’ in the bedroom was a man in a coffin who sits up and grunts… except he very hilariously mistimed his act and was still in the process of climbing into the coffin when Cheryl walked into the room! She was incredulous that he had the nerve to still hold out his hat for a tip. Even though the Dracula story had terrified me for many of my childhood years (Dad loved telling us scary stories), there was nothing remotely spooky about the town or the very kitsch Casa Dracul.

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, so given the unpredictability of the weather in the area, we decided to climb the Clock Tower straight away. We climbed the creaky winding wooden stairs to the top, and were rewarded with a gorgeous 360 degree view of the Old Town within the citadel, and the new town laid out below the city walls. We were there for the beautiful view, but the tower was built as the main sentry lookout to guard the city walls in the 14th century. There was a rambling medieval Museum over different floors of the Clock Tower, but to be honest, none of it caught my attention. However, I was quite fascinated by the close up view of the 17th century puppet-like figurines that sat in the little niches on the two main faces of the Clock Tower.

We walked up the very cool covered wooden Scholars’ Stairway (like something straight out of Hogwarts!) to the top of School Hill. The old Gothic Church on the Hill was closed by the time we got there, but the old German Cemetery was still open. The cemetery was a bit wild and over-grown, but we could still easily make out all the old German names on the elaborate headstones. There was a view of the Tarnava Mare river and the lower part of town, but it wasn’t the panoramic view I’d expected (the many old trees didn’t allow it).

We avoided the local drunk in the covered Stairway and made our way back downhill on the small road, past overgrown gardens with bushes laden with red and white currants. I had never seen white currants before and considered reaching over a fence to ‘sample’ a few, but I spied a big German Shepherd at the fence just in time and thought better of it. 😊

When we got back down to town, the small Piata Cetatii was a hive of activity. It was one of those places you could spend hours watching town life drift by – and we did just that. We had drinks at one of the bars with Naralle, Cheryl, Jenny and Bruce. It was really lovely to sit in the sunny square and talk to travel friends… However, it would have been a very different atmosphere back in the day when the square was used for witch trials, public executions and impalings!

As dusk settled over the medieval town, we ambled over to the other side of the square where our group leader Mattia had booked us an outside table at Casa cu Cerb. It was a building on the corner of the square, with a direct view to the Clock Tower glowing in the beautiful golden evening light. The building was also known for the painting of a deer with real antlers protruding from the wall… apparently the restaurant’s speciality was venison! It felt macabre to order venison after the waiter had pointed that out, so I ordered duck leg with red cabbage and mash, and Andrew had the house special of locally made sausage in a haricot bean stew. Both our meals were outstanding. For dessert we shared pancakes with chocolate ice cream, which was also delicious. The Romanian pancakes are more like crepes than thick American pancakes.

We had planned on having a drink in the square after dinner, but apparently all the bars in the square had to close by 10pm. So on the recommendation of a somewhat inebriated guy, we left the citadel and walked down to the lower part of town. We found a bar in a pizza restaurant and shared beers, mojitos and Aperol spritzers with Mattia, Narelle, Cheryl and Greg. It was a fun but very late night.

Thankfully we were able to sleep-in until 7am, but we also wanted to walk around the Old Town before it woke up. Still tired from only getting a couple of hours sleep, we dragged ourselves out of our room… and were rewarded with having the whole Old Town to ourselves (well, all three circular streets of it). We roamed past the Church of the Dominican Monastery that still holds masses for the Saxon community, and into the narrow side lanes full of row upon row of pastel coloured houses, uneven cobblestones, and the occasional old-world turret from a tower.

The Saxons in Sighisoara were known for their craftsmanship, and each of the town’s 14 towers had been managed by a different trade guild. There were nine towers left – we’d climbed the Clock Tower (the only one you can enter), and we had already walked past the Ropemakers’, Butchers’, Furriers’ and Blacksmiths’ Towers the day before. So we attempted to walk along the city walls to see as many of the remaining gate towers as we could.

In a moody light drizzle, we walked to the Shoemakers’ and Tailors’ Towers. We spied the Tinsmiths’ Tower in the distance but couldn’t see a path to it. Annoyingly, we couldn’t find the Tanners’ Tower, even though I knew it was somewhere near the Tinsmiths’ Tower. However, on researching it later, I realised we had indeed seen it from the Clock Tower, but hadn’t recognised it because its sloping roof was dwarfed by taller buildings. And yes, I was one of those obsessive kids who had to collect the whole set! 😄

Gradually we started sharing the small lanes with people going to work, deliveries to cafes, and vendors setting up their stalls. By the time we got back to the hotel, the large tour groups led by flag carrying guides had turned up, and the areas around the Clock Tower were starting to get crowded.

It was a travel day, so we settled down for what we’d hoped would be a hearty breakfast, but sadly it was quite uninspiring. However, one stand-out item was a lovely black tea with thyme – I’d never had it before, and will definitely be looking out for it from now on. We had a couple of hours before we had to leave, so we checked out and left our luggage in the small reception alcove before walking around the citadel one more time.

We had got used to meandering through the car-free Old Town, and I kept forgetting that vehicles were allowed into one section of the citadel (to service the few hotels on the square). I gave myself a heart attack on a couple of occasions when I realised a car was patiently stalking me as I absently ambled through the town! Bloody tourist 😉

Sighisoara is known for local artisans and their handicrafts, and there were little shops and workshops filled with metal objects, wood carvings, painted ceramics and traditional clothes. We realised that the ground floor of Casa Dracul held a gallery with interesting products, so we bought a small blue and white plate by a local ceramicist… which will serve to remind us of how much we loved our time in Sighisoara. 😊

We were also on a quest to find a post office to buy stamps for postcards, and we were told there wasn’t one in the citadel. So armed with a small hand drawn map by the lovely girl at the gallery, we walked past the Clock Tower and down into the new town. We suspected we’d taken a wrong turn and ducked into a small shop to clarify our directions. The guy could understand English but didn’t feel confident speaking it... so he called an English speaking friend on his mobile phone, gave her the instructions, which she relayed to me on the phone. It was such a sweet and helpful gesture.

Back in the citadel, we had an hour before our minibus arrived, so we sat in the shade in Piata Cetatii and ordered a piece of apple and raisin pie, cold lemonade and elderberry juice from the cafe in the Rock the House building. The square had been taken over by a display of vintage Soviet police cars, and it was amusing to see that Car Club men are the same the world over. 😊

We loved our time in Sighisoara, and had felt very welcome and immediately at ease in the small citadel. Even though he was a fictional character, I think there was something truly Transylvanian about the words Dracula used to greet his guests – ‘Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely. And leave something of the happiness you bring!’.

Next we travel south-east to the small fortified Saxon village of Viscri.

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9th August 2018
duck leg with red cabbage and mash

This makes up for a lot
For a dinner like this, I would wake up early to thunder, deal with police/bomb actions and a whole host of troubles. I hope it was as good as it looks. Can't wait to see more.
9th August 2018
duck leg with red cabbage and mash

Re: This makes up for a lot
It was every bit as delicious as it looks and more! They cook duck a bit less rare than we have it at home... but oh my god their flavours are so amazing! And I now have a whole new appreciation for cabbage :)
10th August 2018
clock tower

Sighisoara
Looks like a delightful place to get lost in your thoughts in the ambience of this medieval town...mmmm!
11th August 2018
clock tower

Re: Sighisoara
It was the perfect place to get lost... both figuratively and literally! :)
11th August 2018

Visiting Dracula
"He roasted his enemies and forced women to eat their own children. Sounds like a nice chap!" This literally made me laugh out loud!! Its nice to see how well preserved the whole town is, and it's prettier than what I imagined. Regards to Dracula :)
11th August 2018

Re: Visiting Dracula
The whole Dracula thing was so cheesy Jennifer... but clearly makes money though! :) We were very surprised at how pretty it was, and even more surprised that such a compact place was so powerful in its day :)
12th August 2018

Early starts
It’s worth getting up early to enjoy what seems to have been a been a lovely Old Town . A very interesting tour .... and yes how a group reacts to events ( cow poo) makes for a good story !! The local food you have tasted has been great . I have friends who have just done a “ luxury “ coach tour in Transylvania and Romania , I odunt they had the same experiences you had !
12th August 2018

Re: Early starts
Getting up early and walking through an empty town or city is one of our favourite things to do... but late nights are the natural enemy of such an activity :)
15th August 2018
streets of sighisoara

Sighisoara - nice place to hang a few days
What I remember from when we visited Sighisoara was that we felt that it could be a nice place to just hang around in for a few days. Lots of nice streets and hidden nooks and crannies to explore. Those kind of places we enjoy. Thanks for bringing back memories. /Ake
16th August 2018
streets of sighisoara

Re: Sighisoara - nice place to hang a few days
It really had the perfect vibe for hanging out! Even when the area near the Clock Tower and the covered Scholars’ Stairway was packed with large groups, the rest of the small Old Town was blissfully peaceful :)
21st August 2018

Medieval Towns
Part of travel as you found is embracing the both historical stories and the folklore. I'm sure it was touristy but as you said those stories meant something to you as a child. It sounds like a lovely storied town surrounded by mountains. Glad the food is all you expected.
22nd August 2018

Re: Medieval Towns
I agree that getting to know the legends and folklore gives us a better understanding of a new culture... and apart from the cheesiness of some of the Dracula marketing, it was an interesting insight. The food exceeded our expectations! :)

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