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Countries Visited:

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Dates of visit:
October 14, 2002 -
November 15, 2002

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Trip Segment
Highlights:

 Meet cousins
 Tour Transylvania
 Visit spas
 Bran Castle
 Corvin Castle
 Brasov Fortress
 Sibiu - German City
 Tour Sighisoara
 Peles Castle
 Art Museums
 Peasant Museums
 

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Trip Introduction
Our 2002 European Odyssey (part 2) was to experience parts of eastern Europe that is rarely seen by American visitors. In this segment of our trip our intention was to see the heart of Romania - Transylvania. Touring by car, and ably guided by a Romanian family member, we spent a week traversing the many sides of this region and seeing up close just what it means to be a "Transylvanian".
Transylvania - The Heart of Romania
Sibiu - A German CityTransylvania lies right in the center of Romania on a plateau surrounded to the north, east and south by the Carpathians and the Apuseni mountains to the west. It has great natural beauty: majestic forests cloak the mountain slopes, and in spring the open meadows are full of wildflowers. Lower down there are vineyards, and some of the hills are scored with lines of ancient terracing said to date from Dacian times. Highlights include Sighisoara, Sibiu (left) and many Saxon villages.

Isolated physically from the rest of the country, some would say Transylvania has a separate identity as well. The Hungarians who colonized it from the 10th century called Transylvania Erdely, 'the forest land', a place full of promise that they thought was theirs for the taking. Germans still know it as Siebenburgen ('the Seven Towns'). For Romanians, taught to see themselves as descendants of the Daco-Romans who preceded the Magyars, Transylvania was their ancient land. Today they call it Transilvania or Ardeal.

But Transylvania has a fame that surpasses mere history. In the collective imagination, it has become a place of fantasy. The mythical Transylvania is inhabited by clichés, of which the most prominent is the figure of a gray-haired vampire. Brain Stoker created his 1897 Dracula from a composite of fact and fiction, and never went to Transylvania at all. In his 1925 travelogue, Raggle Taggle, Walter Starkie wanders through Transylvania like a Roma, weaving together the factual and the supernatural. A sense that this is the edge of the civilized world persists in the minds of western journalists, thanks to the Balkans' apparently chronic instability.

Transylvania's folklore is a fecund mix of pagan and Christian beliefs, nourished by a society that has only recently left the land. Historically folk have endured here by hiding in the forests, which once enclosed Transylvania on all sides. 'Codrul primul prieten omului' goes a well-known saying: 'The forest is man's best friend'.
Text Source: Romania, Blue Guide by A&C Black Publishers, London, Copyright 2000

History of Transylvania

For almost a millennium, the region was part of Hungary, the Habsburg Empire or Austro-Hungary. Between 1526-1689 it became a virtually independent principality under Turkish suzerainty, and for a few months of 1600-01, Mihai Viteazul (Michael the Brave) brought it into union with Moldavia and Wallachia. But since the Middle Ages, Western Europe has had a dominating influence on Transylvania's culture - an important element in this orientation came with the 'Saxons' who settled in the territory from the 12th century. Self-reliant and clannish, these newcomers made a huge impact on Transylvania. Their presence was felt most powerfully in the south, around Brasov, Sighisoara, Medial and Sibiu. The Germans' influence was only weakened in the 1980s, when Ceausescu persuaded the then West German government to pay for their release. Religion too was a western affair: Transylvania has seen the bloody consequences of intolerance in Reformation and Counter-Reformation alike. Usually, the Orthodox Church was cold-shouldered, and its churches were periodically burnt to the ground.

Such a rich land was bound to be fought over. One of the worst raids was carried out by Mongol soldiers of the Emperor Ogedei, successor to Genghis Khan. Known as the `Devil's horsemen', they pillaged, burnt and murdered their way through the principality in 1241-42. This was not their last attack: Tartar invasions continued periodically until 1717. The Turks invaded Transylvania as well, hitting the Saxon townships hard in the 15th and 16th centuries. And when the Saxons withdrew their support for his terrible regime, Vlad Dracula took his revenge on them too.

The Habsburgs intervened in Transylvanian politics long before they finally 'liberated' the unwilling citizens of Brasov and Sibiu. The long-suffering serfs exploded into violence several times from the 15th century, when Gheorghe Doja led a peasants' revolt that was viciously suppressed.

Wretched conditions made serfs rebel again in 1784, this time after months of fruitless petitioning; castles were burnt and landowners were killed. The Habsburg Emperor Joseph II ordered the three ringleaders, Horea, Closca and Crilan, to be punished as an example to the masses. They were captured and brought to Alba Julia. Crilan committed suicide, but Horea and Closca were broken on the wheel. But even more impact was made by the revolution of 1848-49. Part of a snowball effect that ran right across Europe from west to east, Hungarians started it as a protest against the Habsburgs' rule. Romanians saw it as their chance for independence from Hungary, and famously declaring 'Nothing about us without us', they began their own struggle for self-determination. The revolution was crushed with help from Russia, and neither Hungarians nor Romanians succeeded in their demands.

Amid all this unrest there were rare periods of stability, such as the reign of Gabriel Bethlen (1613-29), a prince who encouraged humanistic values, founded colleges and commissioned some fine Renaissance palaces. The Habsburgs too had a calming effect, although this was due more to their policy of enlightened despotism than because they were loved for themselves. They were also great builders: their citadels, palaces, and churches introduced the Baroque into Transylvania, and it was still developing in the 18th century, alongside vernacular styles.

Romania's independence movement was largely forged in Transylvania, even though the principality, which was then part of Austria-Hungary, only joined Romania after the First World War.
Text Source: Romania, Blue Guide by A&C Black Publishers, London, Copyright 2000

Sites Visited

Bucharest Art Museum - The most imposing of the buildings surrounding the Piala Revolulici is the former Royal Palace, on its northwestern corner. When the original single-story dwelling burnt down in 1927, the then king, Carol II, decided to replace it with something far more impressive. The surrounding dwellings were razed in order to build a new palace, with discreet side entrances to facilitate visits by Carol's mistress, Magda Lupescu. However, the resultant, sprawling brownstone edifice has no real claim to elegance and Romania’s postwar rulers spurned the palace as a residence. Since 1950 the palace has housed the National Art Museum in the Kretzulescu (south) wing. During the fighting in December 1989, this building was amongst the most seriously damaged of the city's cultural institutions, and over a thousand pieces of work were said to have been destroyed or damaged by gunfire. After a massive reconstruction project, taking some ten years, the museum finally reopened its doors in 2000. Divided by schools, this gallery has particularly fine paintings from Italian and Spanish artists, including an exceptional Crucifixion by Da Messina, and Cano's beautifully mournful Christ At The Column.
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Bucharest Peasant Museum - The Museum of the Romanian Peasant now occupies the former Museum of Communist Party History (until 1990). It houses a wonderful display of traditional textiles, carvings and ceramics, as well as a superb collection of icons. A wooden church, typical of those found in Maramures, stands at the rear of the museum.
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Lepsa - in the foothills region of the Vrancei Mountains on the Focsani side of the sub-Carpathian Mountains, this is a resort village for weekenders from Bucharest. Tremendous hiking country; village is tiny and picturesque.
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Sovata - Sovata Bai is a bathing resort, surrounded by beautiful forests, on the shore of Lacul Ursu (Bear Lake), where a surface layer of fresh water, a meter deep, acts as an insulator keeping the lower, saltwater at a constant temperature of 30-40 degrees Celsius (86-104 Fahrenheit) all year round. Its mineral waters are supposedly effective for infertility.
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Cluj-Napoca - With its cupolas, Baroque outcroppings and weathered fin-de-siecle backstreets, downtown CLUJ (Klausenburg to the Germans and Kolozswir to the Hungarians) looks every inch the Hungarian provincial capital it once was. Germans founded the town in the twelfth century for the Hungarian King Geza, and the modern-day Magyars - a third of the city's population - still regrets its decline, fondly recalling the Magyar belle epoque, when Cluj's cafe society and literary reputation surpassed all other cities in the Balkans.
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Hunedoara (Corvin Castle) - (Vajdahunyad/Eisemnarkt) would be dismissed as an ugly, smoggy, industrial town were it not also the site of Corvin Castle, the greatest fortress in Romania. It's moated to a depth of 30m and approached by a narrow bridge upheld by tall stone piers, terminating beneath a mighty barbican, its roof bristling with spikes, overlooked by multitudes of towers. It was founded during the fourteenth century and rebuilt in 1453.
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Alba Iulia (Citadel) - is dominated by its huge citadel, in effect the upper town, laid out in the shape of a star. It was here that the declaration of Romanian Unification was made in 1918 and the leaders of the 1784 peasant uprising executed; the citadel also holds the tomb of the Transylvanian warlord, Hunyadi, in the Catholic Cathedral of St. Michael.
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Sibiu - known in German as Hermannstadt, grew to be the chief city of the Transylvanian Saxons. Clannish, hard working and thrifty, its merchants dominated trade between Transylvania and Wallachia by the Olt gorge route, and formed exclusive guilds under royal charter. The Saxons, industrious and prosperous in medieval times, were envied by others and knew it.
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Sibiu Peasant Museum - The excellent Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization is one of the best open-air museums in Romania. The emphasis is on folk technology, with windmills and waterwheels from allover the country rebuilt here in working order.
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Sighisoara - Schassburg in German, Segesvar in Hungarian, this city is a perfectly preserved medieval town in a beautiful hilly countryside. Nine towers remain along Sighisoara’s intact city walls, encircling sloping cobbled streets lined with 16th cent. burgher houses. At the height of it’s power, Sighisoara had three curtain walls and 14 towers.
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Rasnov Peasant Fortress - (Rosenau to the Saxons), this ruined castle crowns the fir-covered hill that overlooking the town. Rasnov was founded in the early thirteenth century by the Teutonic Knights (Deutscheritterorden), who were soon expelled from Transylvania. What remains are the remains of a fourteenth-century structure.
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Bran Castle - The small town of BRAN (Torzburg) is probably the most popular tourist site in Romania. The town commands the entrance to the pass of the same name, formerly the main route into Wallachia. The Saxons of Kronstadt (Brasov) built a castle here in 1377-82 to safeguard this vital trade artery. Perched on a rocky bluff, it rises in tiers of towers and ramparts from the woods, against a glorious mountain backdrop.
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Peles Castle - One of the most popular destinations in Romania. Set in a large park, which is landscaped in the English fashion, the castle outwardly resembles a Bavarian Schloss. It was built between 1875 and 1883 for Romania's imported Hohenzollern monarch, Carol I, and largely decorated by his eccentric wile Elisabeta. Peles contains 106 rooms, richly decorated in ebony, mother of pearl, walnut and leather- all totally alien to the traditional styles of Rumanian art.
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Trip Gallery - Touring Romania
Bucharest - Art Museum
At the Bucharest Art Museum At the Bucharest Art Museum At the Bucharest Art Museum
Bucharest - Peasant Museum
At the Bucharest Peasant Museum At the Bucharest Peasant Museum At the Bucharest Peasant Museum
At the Bucharest Peasant Museum At the Bucharest Peasant Museum At the Bucharest Peasant Museum
Lepsa Hiking
At the Lepsa Spa At the Lepsa Spa At the Lepsa Spa
Sovata Spa
At the Sovata Spa At the Sovata Spa At the Sovata Spa
Cluj-Napoca
Touring Cluj-Napoca Touring Cluj-Napoca Touring Cluj-Napoca
Corvin Castle in Hunedoara
Corvin Castle Corvin Castle Corvin Castle
The Citadel at Alba-Iulia
The Citadel at Alba-Iulia The Citadel at Alba-Iulia The Citadel at Alba-Iulia
Sibiu - A German City
Sibiu City Sibiu City Sibiu City
Sibiu Peasant Village Museum
Sibiu Peasant Village Museum Sibiu Peasant Village Museum Sibiu Peasant Village Museum
Sighisoara's Citadel Hill
Sighisoara Citadel Hill Sighisoara Citadel Hill Sighisoara Citadel Hill
Rasnov - A Peasant Fortress
Rasnov - A Peasant Fortress Rasnov - A Peasant Fortress Rasnov - A Peasant Fortress
Bran Castle
Bran Castle Bran Castle Bran Castle
Peles Castle
Peles Castle Peles Castle Peles Castle
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