Entranced by Transylvania

We left you with the love story of a princess and a violin player that met at the Royal Court in Sinaia, held in a magical castle in Transylvania, the epitomy of Romance itself, beautiful Peles castle.

They were introduced by a very romantic woman, the poet queen Carmen Sylva, the wife of King Carol I. Since her husband was rather cold and they became even more estranged after the death of their only daughter, 3 year old princess Marie, she turned her romantic dreams towards others. She encouraged a love affair between the King’s adopted nephew and heir apparent Ferdinand and one of her favorite ladies in waiting. For that both women were exiled for years from the court and young Ferdinand was sent to Europe to look for a suitable bride. The queen’s romantic name Carmen Sylva was her nom de plum, her real name being Pauline Elisabeth Ottilie Luise of Wied. Not very Romanian sounding, eh?

That’s the thing with the Royal House of Romania. The Kingdom of Romania was pretty short lived and ruled by a royal family that was a branch of the German Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen dynasty. The kingdom existed from 1881, when a German prince Karl was proclaimed king Carol I of Romania, until 1947, when the last king, Michael I of Romania was forced to abdicate. Still in the short 66 years there was plenty of romances, intrigues and, scandals. And sadly, not many happy marriages.

I was never interested in royals and couldn’t really understand people’s obsession with tabloid news of royal families, but now that I have spent hours and hours digging through the life of the Romanian Royal family I can feel a certain satisfaction of a commoner seeing how despite privilege and money they are all pretty screwed up and not particularly happy. So, when Ferdinand had to give up his Romanian love, he dutifully found a suitable bride in 17 year old granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria, Marie. The start of their married life was not easy under the stern control of King Carol I, but Marie dutifully produced children: prince Carol first, and then five more. Still, their relationship matured only to one based on a cordial friendship and respect which ended up giving Marie a lot of positive influence on her husband, when he finally became King Ferdinand I and he had to decide on which side Romania will fight in WWI. It is said she took many lovers and that some of her children were not fathered by her husband, though he helpfully claimed paternity. The next king, their first son Carol II really made a lot of women unhappy. Passionately and in opposition to the rules and his duties he fell in and out of love. Already as a mere teenager he produced two out of wedlock children and then in secret married a general’s daughter with whom he had a son. When that marriage was annulled against his will, he married an exiled Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark and had another son – Michael, but then took up a series of mistresses. Left the country with one and renounced his royal succession rights, putting his son Michael I on the throne at the tender age of 6. Only to change his mind three years later, return and take the throne for himself and proceed to make his ex wife’s life most miserable. Only to be deposed 10 years later with now adult Michael becoming king in the worst of times during WWII.

When Michael was forced to abdicate after the war, he had just been engaged to princess Anne etc. etc. of Bourbon-Parma. In exile and without means and despite opposition from the Catholic pope (who wouldn’t give dispensation to a catholic to marry an Eastern Orthodox) they married in Athens and seem to have been one of the Royal exceptions. They lead a relatively simple life and were married more than 60 years raising 5 daughters. Maybe that is the secret- stay away from court and titles and royal intrigue.

When it comes to intrigue no one was embroiled in it more deeply than famous 15th century Wallachian Voivode (=Count) Dracula. Notice I did not say Romanian, as at his time there was no Romania as of yet. Vlad III Dracula, known as Vlad the Impaler is often considered one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history and a national hero of Romania. He was the second legitimate son of Vlad II Dracul. His father had won the moniker “Dracul” for his membership in the Order of the Dragon, a militant fraternity, established to fight the Ottoman Turks. Younger Vlad was born in the Transylavian Saxon town of Sighisoara (then in the Kingdom of Hungary). You can easily imagine him stalking around those cobblestone streets at night in his black cape. But it would have to be a very small cape as he only stayed there with his family for a few years. I can also imagine his grandma and her sisters looking just about like this in their traditional dress. As a teenager he and his younger brother were held as political hostages by the Ottoman Turks sultan Murad II for four years. It wasn’t a bad existence at all, they were schooled and entertained. While his brother became friends with sultan’s son and converted, Vlad didn’t take lightly to his imprisonment.

When his father was killed by the Hungarians, Vlad made it back home and exacted revenge, embarking on a life of constantly fighting internal and external enemies, especially the Ottoman Turks, who promoted his younger brother Radu the Beautiful. His legendary imaging cruelty is either exaggerated by his enemies or excused by his supporters as a necessary measure of a ruthless Tyrian bringing security and order to his homeland.

Irish writer Bram Stoker borrowed his name and snippets of fact and fairytales to create his famous supernatural blood sucking vampire Count Dracula.

Bran Castle, a great fortresslocated in a mysterious place in the midst of the Carpathian Mountains was chosen as the nocturnal residence of Count Dracula, an ideal and romantic framework for Bram Stoker’s novel. Nobody should be surprised that in real life neither Count Vlad nor Mr. Stoker ever set foot in this castle. Nevertheless thousands of tourists do every day, proving that the power of imagination is real and knows no limits. The more incredible, the more likely the crowds will buy in and pay up! I never read the novel nor seen any of the 200 movies made on the theme of Dracula. It is enough to watch the daily news! Lately it scares the shit out of me. I really don’t enjoy horror movies and find it hard to understand why people seek them out. I don’t like to be scared or have bad dreams. But I don’t mind a good vampire spoof movie and one of the best musicals I ever saw was indeed about Dracula.

Because of Mr. Stoker the western world commonly associates Transylvania with vampires. How unfair, for Transylvania is so much more. This cauldron surrounded by Carpathian mountains boiled for centuries with competing tribes and nations leaving behind a rich history of art, architecture, technical innovation, music and food. Magyars (Hungarians) and Saxons (Germans), Székelys, Ottomans, Poles, Moldovans, Romanians, Gypsies (Romas) and Jews contributed to and competed for the heart of Transylvania.

The name itself Transylvania (“beyond woods” in Latin) speaks of the bucolic beauty. The alternate name, the German Siebenbürgen,   meaning “seven castles” is also used by many neighboring nations.

But wait how do you get seven German castles in Romania? It is not like Romania is even close to Germany! Well, if you are a Hungarian King in the 12th century trying to defend the southeastern border of your kingdom from the foreign invaders trotting in from Central Asia, you look for help far and wide and to the best. And the best at building sturdy fortifications were German Saxons. Incidentally they were also good at mining, and that didn’t hurt, either. Deep in Turda salt mines we realized one does not have to be an engineer to admire the beauty left behind after all the salt has been extracted over hundreds of years of mining. Give the Saxons special rights (whoever ever said no to paying less taxes?) and new opportunities and they will come. “Go East, my Saxon son!” must have been the cry. And through the centuries they mined and they built walls and villages and fortified churches and towns. Seven of them, amongst those the most beautiful Sibiu (Hermannstadt), Brasov (Kronstadt) and Sighisoara (Schässburg). Most of the Germans left Romania after WWII and those who didn’t got stuck under the communist rule and when that finally collapsed, they also took of for Germany and Austria.

At the entrance to the Sibiu’s main Lutheran church tower we met a German lady who volunteered as a local guide. In retirement she came back to live modestly in her beloved home town. She kindly let us conquer few hundred stairs to reveal a beautiful view of Sibiu against Fagaras Mountains shared only with resident pigeons. Looking down we could see all the houses looking back at us with their window-eyes. In a friendly, not creepy way at all. In the town of Sighisoara we strolled trough an expansive and melancholy old graveyard with hundreds of graves of Saxons living in this town for centuries. The Hungarians have left their architectural mark in Transylvania with the Castle of Corvinus (or Hunyeadora) There are a number of legends associated with the castle, the most prominent among them being that Vlad the Impaler spent some seven years in the dungeons of Corvin Castle. In fact it was 12 years at Corvin’s large renaissance castle in Visegrád.There were a numbers of prison towers and the dungeons were connected to a bear pit in which prisoners were disposed in afterwards.

Nice Hungarian contribution, indeed, but what about Romanians? Well, it seems that Romanians were sprinkled throughout the territories, but largely sheep herding peasants with little power, except if you consider Wallachia and Moldavia as having alongside Romanian population the nobility represented by such men as Dracula and Stephan the Great respectively.

In the town of Alba Iulia we were startled to come accross an excavated Roman (no, not a typo missing –ian) town. Here the Roman Empire successfully fought fierce Dacian tribes and under Emperor Trajan established the seat of the XIII Gemini Legion. While Romanian is based on old Roman (Latin) language, it has also been influenced by Slavic and Germanic languages and the exact origin of Romanian is still disputed in academia. For me the richness of the Romanian people lies not in castles and palaces but in their colorful, intricate, handmade and very well preserved and cherished everyday folk art.

And there is no better place but the ASTRA Museum and endless skansen on the outskirts of Sibiu. We lucked out that we visited at a time of a festival, so the huge outdoor area with rescued and restored traditional dwellingsfrom all over Romania was particularly lively and full of happy people in beautiful traditional clothes. Some were singing, dancing, and playing instruments and some cooking and npassing out free traditional foods. A great send off from our favorite Balkan country.

14 thoughts on “Entranced by Transylvania

  1. I prefer the storytelling of the princesses and castles and the romantic Rumania rather than the Vampires. Loved hearing the fascinating tales.
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  2. What an intriguing place. I forwarded your Romania blogs to a friend who leaves tomorrow for Romania. She was so pleased with all the information you provided.

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  3. I believe that Transylvania is also the Birthplace of the Unitarian Church. Early migrants of this group came to the United States to freely practice their religion which embraces all faiths and belief in God, any God, is a personal matter decided by the individual. A Unitarian joke is “Salvation through bibliography “. In this country quite a few Presidents of the United States have been Unitarian. In the Our country each congregation decides on their own path. I believe that The Walnut Creek Sanctuary sponsors a visiting minister from Transylvania to the U.S. each year to the Unitarian Seminar in Berkeley.

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  4. Another interesting recount. The folk rafts and embroidery would have been worth seeing at leisure. I saw them only on a 2and a half hour tour of Ceauscescu’s palace, the tour covering only one-seventh of the building! All too rushed for me, but beautiful quality work.

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  5. What a tremendous cultural mish mash of a region. Unfortunately, my experience of Romania is limited to Bucuresti and I have long been promising myself to return, I really must do it soon.

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  6. Moc pěkně napsané, Mirku. Líbí se mi to detailní zprostředkování historie, obrázky i vnitřní zaujetí a nadšení. Díky moc. Hanka

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