Victims of circumstance in Viscri


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Europe » Romania » Transilvania » Viscri
June 15th 2018
Published: August 16th 2018
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HE SAID...
Today we were travelling southeast from Sighisoara to Viscri.

Our journey took us through the heart of Saxon Land, which many believe to be the real Transylvania. After driving for a short time on the reasonably smooth highway out of Sighisoara, we turned into a barely traversable road, and bumped and rocked our way into Viscri – a small fortified Saxon village surrounded by lush green fields.

We dropped our bags in our very basic but comfortable homestay and headed out for a walk around the village. This was a very rural place, and the smell of cow manure hung heavily in the air. We made our way up to the whitewashed and tile-roofed fortified church, which had originally been a Catholic church until Lutheran reformists seized it for their own purposes. In a true reflection of the village, the church was basic, but given the original structure was built in the 12th century, it was doing pretty well. We climbed a narrow stone stairwell and a series of unstable wooden stairs to the top of the church tower, which afforded an impressive 360 degree view of the village and surrounding countryside.

A German (Saxon) lady told us a little about the church before we started exploring it for ourselves, and she mentioned that the fall of communism in 1989 saw 90% of the local Saxon population return to Germany. I was intrigued why they hadn’t left beforehand – did the communist regime have a policy that required workers to stay within the State? I asked if it was difficult to leave during communist rule, and she said it was a very complicated process until Nicolae Ceausescu realised money could be made by selling Saxons back to Germany by way of exit permits valued at $5,000 deutschmark per person. Her anger and hatred towards Ceausescu was palpable.

She was very friendly and eager to talk, so I mentioned in passing that she must have been relieved when the communist regime fell in 1989. She responded by saying it was one of the saddest days of her life. I was confused, but over the course of our conversation I realised it was not so much the fall of communism that saddened her, but the loss of her Saxon friends who fled back to Germany.

She told us she spent 38 years of her life under communist rule in Romania, and while it was an incredibly hard life, it was the only life she knew until the world opened to her in 1989. She was a teacher of fine arts, but she worked as a cog in the wheel of communist agriculture in Viscri. Food was very scarce and rationed – she was given 500ml of cooking oil and half a kilogram of sugar each month by the State. She received nothing else, as most of the rationed food was distributed to those living and working in Romania’s cities. Because she was in the country, it was expected she would find enough food to sustain her and her family from the fields around her. She told me a story of how she once managed to get hold of some meat, and in her excitement to prepare the meal, she threw the bones into the backyard of her house. After about four days, she realised she could have made a soup with the bones, so she went out and dug them out of the snow. Despite animals having gnawed at them, it did not dent her excitement at using them in a soup.

She then turned on communism, and I realised Pandora’s Box had been opened. She told us how some people simply pretended to work under communism, and were happy enough to collect their rations every month. However, in post-1989 Romania, people had to apply for jobs rather than being given them by the State, and this was a change many struggled to come to terms with. She was becoming very emotional and tearful as she spoke, and it was only an incoming phone call on her mobile that bought the conversation to an end. I really valued her time and openness. If she was 38 in 1989, she was 67 now, and I would have loved to have kept talking with her.

We made our way back to our homestay, stopping in for a beer at a tiny bar on the way. This was an extremely quiet and isolated little rural village, and we needed to watch our every step, as farm animal excrement was everywhere on the dirt roads that criss-crossed the rows of pastel-coloured houses. As we wandered the village, we came across farmers and farm workers (predominantly Roma Gypsies), children, horse-drawn carts, expensive Audis, cows, geese, ducks, cats and dogs. Old men and women sat on wooden seats in front of their houses, while most of the villagers went around their daily lives, seemingly oblivious to our presence in their town.

As early evening descended on the village, we walked to the main homestay house for a home-cooked meal. It was an amazing feast. We started with a small glass of 50% proof schnapps (called palinka or horika elsewhere), and helped ourselves to bottles of homemade white wine which were replaced as soon as they were empty. It was, without a question of doubt, the worst wine I’ve ever tasted, but it did start tasting a bit better after a few glasses.

Large serving bowls of beef and pasta soup were placed on the table, which we ladled into our bowls before stirring in large dollops of sour cream. It was an amazing taste, which we mopped up with sourdough bread. When the soup bowls were empty, our hosts brought large serving bowls of lamb casserole to the table, which was the highlight of the night and one of the best meals we’d had so far in Romania. Large fresh chillies protruded out of glass jars, which we cut up and stirred through the rich casserole gravy – pure heaven! The meal concluded with a slice of dry cake, similar in flavour to an Italian panettone.

This had been an amazing meal, and an amazing end to our stay in this fortified Saxon village. We sat around and talked for a while, before the main event of the evening – the return of the village cows. We’re not entirely sure where they had been grazing during the day, but all of a sudden there were thirty or forty cows walking up the main road of the village, unassisted by humans or dogs. Each cow knew its own house, and would slowly turn from the main road and walk into an open gate. As soon as they were safely inside, the owner would close the gate behind them and disappear into the house. Just as quickly as the village had been packed with cows and waiting owners, it was deserted. We’d never seen such a spectacle – cows who knew where they lived, and who happily returned every night.

We staggered back to our homestay accommodation and crashed. It had been yet another amazing travel day, with new and incredible cultural experiences we had never expected.



SHE SAID...
Today was a travel day from Sighisoara to Viscri, by minibus.

The 40km minibus trip to the small Transylvanian village of Viscri should have been quick, but the last 10km or so was along a very bumpy dirt road pitted with potholes the size of small lakes, which extended the trip to an hour. The scenery around the village was picturesque. Lush agricultural fields lay among fallow fields full of wild flowers, all beautifully set against forested hills. The outskirts seemed to be occupied by farm workers and their families, with many horses (attached to carts) tethered outside the basic houses.

Viscri was originally inhabited by Saxons from the Luxembourg area. This village is UNESCO-listed and has apparently remained virtually unchanged for 900 years. When we drove into the main dirt road of the village and stepped off the minibus, the modern world felt light years away. On first glance, the place looked like an artist’s sketch of an idyllic rural village with gingerbread-roofed houses!

The group was staying in homestays across four houses scattered along the main street of the village. We were allocated house #11 with Greg, and Claudia was our host (assisted by Charlie the very friendly cat). Behind the high wall and big gate of the house, there were a series of buildings which housed a shop and cafe on one side, and our two rooms and Claudia’s home on the other. The rest of the block comprised a beer garden at the front and a piggery at the back. The set up was somewhat rustic, but very comfortable.

We dropped our luggage in our room and eagerly set off on a walk through the village. There were a few wide dirt streets lined with brightly painted traditional Saxon houses with red tiled roofs, a few horse-drawn carts carrying firewood and hay, and a noisy gaggle of geese. Not surprisingly, everyone seemed to know everyone, but none of them seemed to care there was a bunch of tourists walking through their streets. Most houses had small wooden benches outside the gates, where old people and kids sat watching village life go past. We took note of a particular friendly old man, who was sitting in a short sleeved white shirt outside his home when we arrived. Every few hours that we passed him, he’d added a layer to his clothing – first a sleeveless blue vest, then at the end of the day, a black jacket over the vest. 😊

The first stop on our walk was at the village’s main claim to fame – the Viscri Fortified Church, reported to be the oldest in Transylvania. The original church was built by the Szekely inhabitants who guarded the area in the 12th century. However, the Saxons extended the church and added the fortifications and towers in the 13th century (when Transylvania was part of Hungary).

Set on a woodland hill, the bulky white walls and red tiled roofs of the fortified church and towers were rather impressive. We were the only ones in the complex, and our group leader Mattia had organised a volunteer at the church to give us a briefing. I enjoyed hearing about the history of the transplanted Saxon community, but I was more fascinated to hear a firsthand account of how it was to live in such a community with old customs and traditions that were carried through the centuries. The church clearly played a central part in their lives.

I got the sense that the Saxon community had been quite insular and guarded from integration with the Romanians. So I wasn’t really surprised when the volunteer told us that most of the Saxon community decided to take up an offer to resettle back in Germany (through a deal brokered between Nicolae Ceausescu and the German government in the late 1980s). It’s thought that 90% of the Saxon community decided to repatriate, which obviously decimated their community and had huge consequences for those who stayed behind.

After that brief and very interesting overview of the Saxon history in Viscri, we climbed the sometimes-hazardous dark and creaky wooden stairs to the church tower. The church tower was the tallest of the towers in the complex and had been a key element of the fortifications against potential invaders. The narrow walkway at the top of the tower didn’t seem as sturdy as it should have been, but we were rewarded with fabulous views of the charming village and surrounding farmland.

However, our peaceful explorations came to an end when we saw a large German group walk up to the entrance. We decided to beat a hasty retreat back down, as the small and awkward stairs inside the tower and the narrow walkway at the top wasn’t conducive to crowds (especially as there was only one volunteer at the entrance, and definitely no staff to monitor numbers entering the tower).

An adjoining building held a museum with paraphernalia from the Saxon community. I’m never a fan of what I call ‘Grandma’s house / Grandpa’s shed’ type museums, but we were all quite fascinated with the traditional Saxon bed with a ‘bed drawer’. The wooden bed was higher than a normal bed, and the space under it held a ‘drawer’ containing a pull-out bed with legs. Apparently, a couple would sleep on the bed with their children, and the parents / parents-in-law would sleep on the pull-out section. Obviously the set up offered no privacy, but would have worked brilliantly as a device to keep the population size in check. 😉

When we walked back to the village, we saw local women knitting socks and hats outside their homes. They were part of the Sock Project, a community-based tourism initiative where locals had partnered with an external German based organisation which supported the local Roma community through the sales of their handmade goods. I considered buying some handstitched wool felt bootie things, but I couldn’t find any that fitted my narrow feet.

We stopped for drinks at one of the two of bars in town. I say bar, but it was merely a shop in the front part of a house, with seating on the road. It was nice to sit in the sun with a drink, but I was very aware that this was only set up for tourists and wasn’t an activity locals participated in.

Some of the houses and the Saxon Fortified Church were renovated by the Mihai Eminescu Trust, which specifically promoted the preservation of old architecture. Incidentally, Prince Charles was a patron of the Trust, and later bought a house in the main street of Viscri through his own Foundation. Prince Charles is widely known for his love of heritage conservation, so it made sense.

The daughter of the main homestay host was the caretaker of ‘the Prince Charles house’, so we got a brief look inside. Thought to be the oldest house on the street, it had been sympathetically renovated and is now run as a guesthouse. The high profile Trust not only helped with the preservation of the architecture of the traditional Transylvanian Saxon houses, but had also helped to train locals in old heritage trades producing appropriate tiles, bricks and metal work etc. for future renovations of the houses and fortified church.

There’s a funny side-story to ‘the Prince Charles house’. On our walk through the village, Mattia had pointed out a house and told us that we could have a look inside later in the day. So we lingered outside this beautifully renovated and painted house #143 and took some photos, especially as there was a fortuitous parade of geese waddling past the house. A car full of locals drove slowly past us into the driveway, and they looked very curious as to what we were doing outside the house. We assumed they were caretakers of the property and continued to take photos. Later in the day, Mattia confessed that he’d got the house number wrong, and it was actually house #163 on the other end of the main street. I thought it was hilarious that the owners of #143 will never know why a bunch of tourists had taken such an intense interest in their house! 😊

This village may have been Saxon once, but since the mass exodus to Germany, the village is now multi-ethnic. The village would certainly have fallen into disrepair if Romanians hadn’t moved into the empty houses and helped revive the village. With the help of external organisations, the village seems to be heading in the direction of sustainable agriculture and cultural tourism. I love that Viscri has been regenerated as a working village, because it would have been sad to see it only exist as a shell to serve tourists.

After we’d walked through the village, we took a leaf out of the older locals’ books and sat on the bench outside our homestay… to write our travel notes while watching village life around us. There were children on bikes running errands to the shop, deliveries from farms on horse-drawn carts, and the occasional tractor chugging past. But the most interesting sight was a cow heavy with milk who ambled past us, stopped outside a particular house and moo-ed loudly. Within minutes the gate was opened and the cow walked in. 😄

Dinner was at the main homestay house #15. We arrived to find an outdoor room set up with bottles of homemade white wine and schnapps (called palinka or horinka in other parts of Romania). The schnapps was brutal, and the white wine was quite rough, but they had been offered to us as a welcome to their home – so we dutifully drank them both.

The meal started with a vegetable and beef soup with pasta, which was served with sourdough bread, whole chillies and sour cream. It was seriously delicious, especially after we’d stirred a dollop of sour cream through it. The lamb casserole served with shredded cabbage and mamaliga (Romanian corn porridge/polenta) which followed was even more delicious! This was pure comfort food, and I loved it. The proof that everything was utterly delicious was Andrew singing the praises of even the polenta! 😊

We finished the meal with a sort of marmorkuchen (German marble Bundt cake). It was tasty, but I’m more used to having something like that with a cup of tea than as a dessert. We felt very lucky to be sitting in this homestay, being fed delicious food made with incredibly fresh produce. Almost everything on the table was grown or raised within walking distance of where we sat. It topped all our previous ‘low food mile’ experiences!

At 8:30pm we were told that the cows would soon start coming home from the fields to be milked. Obviously the lone cow we’d seen before had decided to come home earlier than the others. Not long afterwards, we heard the moo-ing of numerous cows as they turned right into the main street. I’d assumed it would be one big herd that belonged to one person, but they weren’t walking as a herd and they belonged to multiple families who all shared the fields and shepherds. There were a few shepherds walking behind the cows (we later realised it was to protect them from vehicles and local dogs), but for the most part the cows meandered at their own pace, and knew exactly where to go. Each would turn into the open gate of their homes without any prompting. We only saw one animal get it wrong – a young calf followed another cow into a house and had to be brought out and sent to its real home. We also spied an old horse and three goats walking home with all the cows.

It was a beautiful insight into the workings of the village, and I loved the relationship the villagers seemed to have with all their animals. We’d already noticed that most homes in the village had multiple domestic and farm animals. They were all healthy-looking and friendly, and there wasn’t any animosity between the domestic animals – all signs of a happy village. We only saw two uncomfortable animal experiences in our time there… watching a gigantic horse being broken-in (admittedly I don’t understand the process, but it looked stressful to the horse); and seeing a very tired looking horse with a sore leg attached to a heavy wooden cart (we weren’t surprised that his humans weren’t particularly friendly folks).

There was a third ‘animal incident’… but not categorically of the animal kind. When we walked out to watch the cows, the homestay’s two dogs followed us out onto the street. I thought nothing of this as they’d been on the street before, but I did notice that none of the other village dogs were out. When the cows walked past the house, the dogs started charging them. A couple of us acted on instinct and tried to steer the dogs back into the house. Well, the self-appointed Ms I-Know-Everything in our group took offence at this and started garbling on about us ‘not understanding the village way’. There was a time I would have told her to get stuffed, but I’ve finally learnt to ignore crabby people / recognise the manifestations of their issues. So I kept things civil and merely pointed to the bleeding shoulder of one of the dogs who’d just been gored by a cow horn. She kept tersely repeating ‘it’s part of the process, it’s part of the process’. What process??? Two minutes later the shepherds started yelling and the homestay hosts swiftly called the dogs in. I looked pointedly at Ms I-Know-Everything, but she pretended she didn’t see any of it. I had to laugh… especially when I realised the term ‘bossy cow!’ couldn’t have been more fittingly illustrated! 😄

Buoyed by the spectacle of the happy cows coming home, we returned to the dining table and had more white wine and schnapps. As I mentioned before, we’d all thought the white wine was very average at the start of the night but apparently (according to Andrew, Bruce and Greg) it got exponentially better with each glass! I stuck to the crazy strong schnapps instead.

At some point in the night we realised it had started raining. It got progressively worse and turned into a thunderstorm, which we couldn’t possibly have walked home in. We were trapped for another hour or two… so we kept drinking. The eventual walk home to number #11 felt longer than just four houses down the road. It was dark and wet, and the cows had left many fresh cowpats on their way home. Charlie the cat was waiting at our door, but I wasn’t sure of his flea situation, so I sadly told him he couldn’t come into our room (but a little later I saw Claudia’s burly husband pick him up, talk baby-talk to him, and carry him into their house… and I felt much better).

It had been a day of enjoyable and unusual travel experiences, topped off by a fabulous dinner and evening… what more could we possibly ask of the travel gods?

As we prepared for bed, we reflected on the way of life we’d been welcomed into. When we live in cities, we have a tendency to romanticise this kind of village living. We equate it with simplicity and happiness, but calling it the ‘simple life’ doesn’t give due credit to the extremely hard working people who inhabit places like this. I could see the daily grind was challenging, and I can only imagine that it would be a harsher existence in winter. This made me value our experience in the village all the more.

Next we travel south-east to Brasov… via Dracula’s Castle!

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16th August 2018

Cows coming home
I love the idea of the cows all heading down the street, each going to their own home. Your blog made me feel as if I was there with you. As for the "bossy cow", there often is one in the group isn't there - I try, usually unsuccessfully, to ignore them ...
16th August 2018

Re: Cows coming home
The cows were so adorable! I wondered if they had to train them to do it or if it’s something all cows are capable of doing... I suspect it’s the later. You are so right about there always being a bossy cow in the group, we need to compare notes on our experiences at some point Lori! :)
17th August 2018

Another Good Read!
The more I learn about your ongoing trip through eastern Europe, the more fascinating I find it. So interesting to learn about the Germans' dilemma -- trapped in Romania under Communist rule or having to come up with 5,000 Deutsch Marks to be expatriated to Germany. But I have to say, it was the story about the cows which I really loved!
17th August 2018

Re: Another Good Read!
Thanks for following along with us. It was the German government who paid the money, and we guessed to was to attract farming families to settle in what was East Germany. The little we saw of Eastern Europe has really made us excited about travelling more extensively through the region. And those cows were awesome! :)
20th August 2018

HRH
Send the " cow and 'the prince charles house' " photo to Clarence House. I'm sure Charles would be pleased to see his investment - and it would be one in the eye for Ms I-Know-Everything!
21st August 2018

Re: HRH
I might just look up the email address for Clarence House... I'm sure it will give the communications people a bit of a laugh :)
22nd August 2018

1989.... so many changes
Change can be incredibly hard even if they are good changes. I could feel the sadness in her stories. Viscri sounds lovely and we'll add it to our visit when we go. Loved the story of the cows. How sweet. I'm glad you've had a nice trip. This town gave you time for reflection of city life vs. village life. Happy travels.
23rd August 2018

Re: 1989.... so many changes
Thanks for following us on our travels Merry. Yes the changes to this small community were felt very personally and deeply by those who opted to stay. I got the feeling that there was still a sense of betrayal about it all! Those cows were incredible, and it made me realise that I really don't know much about their kind :)
7th September 2018

My Favorite Entry So Far This Trip
Thanks for a well-written insight into how lives were impacted post-1989. It seemed like yesterday that I (and I'm sure you, too) listened in disbelief as the BBC reported that the Berlin Wall was coming down. I never doubted that the transition was anything but traumatic for most people, but your story here puts a more human aspect to the whole narrative.
7th September 2018

Re: My Favorite Entry So Far This Trip
Thanks Siew! We were sad that so many years on, people are still so traumatised by the events leading up to the fall of communism in 1989. Not surprisingly, different generations had vastly different attitudes and levels of optimism for the future...

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