Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sighisoara and the eventful return drive to Cluj * Friday, July 13

Friday was to be our last day driving through Transylvania, and our plans were rather modest.  We wanted to find the nearby village of Sighisoara, tour there a bit, and then return to Cluj by 5 p.m.  We’d hand back the shiny red car to Daniel our car rental agent, and then – okay, this was my unspoken plan, one I hadn’t shared with my calmer, irreligious partner – I’d let out my breath in relief at being safe and sound, and fall on my knees at the nearest cathedral.  We loaded the car and went merrily on our way. 
Sighisoara photo from a website
promoting monastery life
We chose to stop in Sighisoara because it is a UNESCO world heritage site, so chosen for this august distinction because it is a village on the top of a steep hill surrounded by 16th century walls – they call it a citadel – and in it are all these equally old and charming buildings, towers, town squares, and so on.  Were you to be flying through the air like a carefree stork, you can see from this photo how Sighisoara appears from afar.  We drove up the cobblestone road to the citadel walls, squeezed through a narrow archway, and on the other side was a charming late medieval tourist trap full of souvenir booths.  Everybody wants to see this place because it is so beautiful and well-preserved.  Let’s not forget to mention that Sighisoara can boast of being the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, the creep who was immoralized as Count Dracula.  On the car ride to the town I read about the horribly sadistic real acts of Vlad, and it still puzzles me why this is such a draw to people.  But Sighisoara is gorgeous when you peer over the teeming hoards of visitors, for you can see picturesque scenes of the town square, wiggly narrow streets, colorful buildings, and a view toward the cathedral and school buildings that sit even higher up the hill. 
normal Sighisoara
a passive-aggressive fish-eyed photo
We climbed the clock tower.  This one contained display cases on each floor filled with tools, vases, and other daily items; and the clock on top was cleverly designed so that a different figure emerged out of the window every day of the week, such as “oh there is Mars the god of war so it must be Tuesday!”  We went to the very top to see the terrific view. 

the well-dressed tourist
We passed up a visit to the Torture Room Museum.  Instead, we walked around the square and searched the souvenir shops for something worthy.  Lucyna had gotten into her head the idea that I needed a patterned shirt or blouse and was determined to find it in Sighisoara.  My clothes were pretty boring, consisting entirely of plain colored shirts and plain colored capris or pants.  She, in contrast, had these lovely flowered or plaid tops with coordinating bright necklaces.  I imagined that people saw us together and thought “butch and femme,” but it was still no reason to buy a shirt decorated with the picture of a vampire.  Walking around the square we found a team of artists who work in wood and finish each other's work – this one carves, that one paints, the other one calligraphs. They are devoted Christians and so, sadly for us all, I passed up all their beautiful bowls decorated with the words of John or Luke about keeping the faith.  We did buy some of their beautiful carved wooden spoons, though.  We were hungry after viewing these eating implements, so we compared the menus of the village square's restaurants and ate in the place that served cherry pie.   

always a teacher
It was very hot and sunny, and at first it didn’t seem so daunting to climb up the hill by way of the covered long staircase.  I remember it being nearly endless.  A little gypsy boy with a sad face whisked up and down the staircase trying to sell little bunches of wilted white flowers to everyone who stopped to take a breath.  At the top of the stairs sat a gypsy teenaged girl who begged for money, a little baby in her lap.  I didn’t pay much attention to the church that was up at the top, though I found an avid student in the museum memorializing the school that used to be there. 

gypsy king's house
Time to go back to Cluj.  We drove down the hill to the main road, once again encountering road work, once again establishing ourselves as the slowest-moving car in Romania.  We passed a memorable site, a house, all bright and glittering in the sun, unlike any other structures we’d seen.  Lucyna surmised that it must be the house of the leader of a gypsy clan, and sure enough a man guarding the front door came lurching toward us when he saw my pointing camera.  Lucyna managed to press down the gas pedal without hesitating to ponder how to change gears, and so we got away in time. 

Nevertheless, a different authority put a shocking halt to our car a few miles later.  To our astonishment, the police waved us over for speeding.  “Radar – 81 km per hour,” the man in blue said.  That's 50 mph, according to my handy dandy cell phone conversion program.  Frankly, I was amazed that we had reached that speed.  But we had been going down a long hill, and four other hapless drivers were pulled over right in front of us, the same cars that had zipped past us, so it was clear that we had all gotten caught in a speed trap. 
countryside full of hidden snares

The policeman listened patiently when Lucyna explained our experience of being the foreign tortoise pressed from behind by the Romanian elephants.  Although he seemed a bit sheepish after hearing her story and looking us over, he did, after all, have a quota to meet.  While he filled out about 5 different papers in triplicate, we sat and tried to keep our exclamations of incredulity quiet so we wouldn’t be thrown into a Romanian jail.  I called Daniel and told him we’d be late, and we agreed to meet next to Hotel Melody where we’d originally picked up the car.  After making our 210 lei donation to the Romanian state, we drove away in freedom.  For a few minutes Lucyna actually followed the posted speed limit (30 kph = 18 mph), causing a great deal of distress in the drivers behind us and not a little terror in me that they’d roll right over us in frustration.     

The last part of our road trip was less costly but even more harrowing: the drive into Cluj, that city full of cars zipping around one-way poorly marked streets divided by confusing round-abouts.   At every intersection, Lucyna asked me which of the three options she should take, and I frantically tried to match the street markings with the map.  Good thing we could see, miles away, the central cathedral in the middle of the town square, and we remembered that because every single vehicle that enters the town zooms by Hotel Melody, it would be inevitable that we’d get there, too.  As we neared, Lucyna wisely ignored my ambitious but highly unrealistic driving suggestions of stopping by the side of the street – surely we would have been mashed to bits. 

Cluj cathedral from the square edge
Instead, she coolly steered us to the parking area next to the cathedral in the midst of the Cluj town square.   How convenient for my plan to fall into worshipful thanks!  But no, although I let out a big sigh of relief, the sight of an actual cathedral dampened my religious fervor, and I called the car rental agent instead.  He arrived a few minutes later and drove us to the hotel we would be staying at for the next two nights, Hotel Central.  

This new place was a vast improvement over Hotel Melody.  On a quiet street, each room looked out on a leafy tree.  Every room had a separate air conditioner that was controlled by a remote, and the desk clerks were very nice.  We showered and got dressed for dinner.  Lucyna nearly fainted when I appeared without my t-shirt and capris.  In honor of Shabbat I wore tailored long pants and a cream-colored jacket.  “Butch and femme,” I thought, when she walked into my room with her pretty top, twirly skirt, and necklace.  It seemed like a good idea at the time to eat dinner at Cafe Andalusa, the place we had dined our first night in Cluj, until I heard again those two Romanian folk songs that continued to play unremittingly through the meal.  But there was that little glass of vodka, and this time I managed to get it all down.  I got back to the hotel room, changed into my PJs, and exhausted from the day, I slept so soundly that I didn't even hear the thunderstorm that crashed through the night.      

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Sibiu and Biertan, southern Transylvania * July 12

They watch you wherever you go.
Another day in Transylvania, another medieval walled city – though by the end of the day we’d be in two.  It didn’t take us long to arrive in Sibiu, pronounced si (as in sit) - byew.  It is a modern city of just over 150,000 with an old walled town in the middle.  We headed past the new buildings to the inner, old town, where the buildings sport windows that are topped by roofing that makes them look like hooded eyes.  This style is apparently unique to Sibiu.   Everyone else found it just a tad too creepy to imitate.   
Transylvania was governed by many rulers over the centuries, controlled at various times by men and women of various nationalities and tongues. Sibiu is the current Romanian name evoking the old Romanian village name of Cibinium.  German-speaking people (so-called Saxons) from the northwest moved into south Transylvania in the 12th century and by the 17th and 18th century the region was in their hands.  They called Sibiu Hermannstadt and gave it high walls with 39 towers and four corner structures called bastions that were each guarded by members of the town’s 19 guilds.  The town fell under Habsburg rule for periods during the 18th and 19th centuries, and these rulers placed the  

governor of south Transylvania safely within the walls.  Southern and northern Transylvania were separated and together from the late 19th century until right after World War II when they were made part of modern Romania.  The guide books and posted historical narratives don’t mention the Jews in the pre-19th century, and that’s because there were just a few entrepreneurs who wandered through – the rulers weren’t inclined to allow them to settle, and perhaps there wasn’t enough of a town life for their occupations. 

fish-eyed view of Sibiu

These old medieval towns have museums full of all sorts of tchotchkes we were not interested in viewing, especially in the heat.  We walked up a long staircase that brought us to one of the large town's three interconnecting squares.  I paid a small fee for the privilege of climbing up to the top of the town council's clock tower to see the 360 degree view.  Lucyna, meanwhile, sat at a cafe and drank iced drinks, and once I came down and wrung out my shirt, we set out for the synagogue that was just outside the old town walls. 
Sibiu synagogue on Constitution Street
looking up at the inside
The woman at the tourist bureau told us that the synagogue was accessible only for groups that arranged in advance.  We were bad and didn't plan ahead, but we went anyway, walking there at a snail’s pace.  The synagogue is on Constitution Street and surrounded by a locked gate, and we peered through the fence like wistful orphans.  Fortunately, a woman on the sidewalk walking toward us returning from her lunch inquired as to whether we wanted to go in, and before I could give her my Jewish credentials (she didn’t care) she said she’d show it to us but only “quick quick!”  What a treat that was!  It's a very pretty synagogue, lots of gorgeous tile work and cleverly patterned wall paper.  Go to the top of this page to the tab, and you'll see more photos, including one of Lucyna pretending to be a cantor at the bima.  It was great to learn that during World War II no Jews were deported from Sibiu!  How lovely not to have a Holocaust memorial display right in the synagogue.  Although there are community classes and cultural events, it is a tiny and shrinking community.  After World War II, most surviving Romanian Jews decided they should leave while they could, and when Zionist emissaries beckoned, about 120,000 moved to Israel. 

We returned to our car and drove to the Astra Museum, an award-winning outdoor museum of Romanian village life.  There is a little lake in the middle, and peasant homes and farm buildings and sheepfolds and various kinds of mills are situated all around it, with inadequately short descriptions in Romanian and English.  But it was really pretty and green, and though it was very hot it was cooler than it would be anywhere else but our car.  At a food area under the trees, Lucyna had a dessert that she recalled fondly every day after: they were called pancakes, but really they were freshly baked cake donuts stuffed with fruit jelly and slathered with whipped sweet cream. 

deep in prayerful thanksgiving
As we were leaving, an American woman corralled us and tried to get us to agree that it was a good idea for her to start a tourism business featuring hired drivers to take people around Romania.  She was tall and strong and was raised by Romanian-speaking parents so the language was not a problem.  “Why not drive yourself?”  I asked her.  I was pleased to hear this Amazon passionately declare that she could never drive in Europe with all the confusing international signs and strange driving practices, since I had been secretly worrying that Lucyna would want to hand over the wheel to me. 

After going to the park's "Popular Art Gallery," which doubles as the gift shop, we set out on the road again.  The plan was to stay in a nice place, preferably another pensiunea, preferably one with air conditioning.    
Easier said than done!  We could not get out of Sibiu: there was major road construction, and no matter where we turned or what sign we followed or what directions people gave us, we kept getting back to the old town.  Finally we found a nice guy who spoke German I could understand who drew us a picture of how to drive 10 miles west out of the city so we could circle the construction areas and go the north.  We breathed easier when the spires and towers were in the far distance.  But out in the countryside on the highway, there was road construction with frequent stops and starts and daredevil Romanian driving antics.  The good news, though, was (1) the car has excellent air conditioning, and (2) we saw gorgeous scenery and even gypsies on the side of the road selling their shiny copper pots and pans.  

the view outside the pensiunea window

roofs and hills of Biertan
Who needs copper pots when you can visit Biertan, a UNESCO World Heritage site boasting a 15th century double-walled fortified Saxon cathedral and monastery?  We parked the car in the town center and walked into the “medieval restaurant Ungerles,” and they told us they had rooms available in the pensiunea down the road.  A young woman led us down the street into a beautifully reconstructed medieval building with huge pretty rooms suitable for Saxon princesses.  No air conditioning, but thick stone walls promised a cool night.   
 Back in the rooms after a lousy dinner at the medieval restaurant (no complimentary vodka, a sure sign), we each determined to take advantage of the gargantuan bathtubs in our rooms.  They were so high and long that, filled up halfway, I couldn't really find any way to anchor my feet and I kept floating down into the tub.  It was lovely to be clean.  At the end of the room was the window with its exquisite view of rooftops and the fortified church.  Serenaded by a yowling cat, I went right to sleep. 
an early morning scene
And I woke up early the next morning from the sound of a horse clip-clopping down the street pulling a carriage.  After our breakfast, we walked through the cathedral.  Like virtually all of the churches we'd seen on this trip, it was just a place of show.  People don't worship in them anymore, and there didn’t seem to be a town church, either.   

From what I saw of Biertan’s religious legacy, I could understand why people might be inclined to abandon religion.  There is a door in the cathedral’s sacristy that has earned much attention for the 17 locks guarding the treasures within.  And one of the town bastions was used to discourage couples seeking a divorce.  According to legend, the clergy would confine for several weeks the quarreling couple to a room containing only one set of cutlery and one narrow bed.  Did it succeed?  “Only one couple decided to go through with divorce in 400 years,” the tourists are told.  I, for one, don’t believe a word of it.  Were human beings ever so uncomplicated that this could be thought to be an effective strategy for marital bliss and not the road to murder and rape?  A better explanation for the low divorce rate might be the storks who nest on a building in the midst of the town.  All day long during this season you can see mama, papa, and two baby storks hanging out enjoying the breeze.   We walked through the beautiful village, packed up, and started out on the last day of our road trip.