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Transylvania A Hidden Treasure

September 12, 2013 DESTINATION, Headline News No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59In 1897 Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ put Transylvania on the map. And the rather silly horror story has permanently coloured the popular imagination of this extremely beautiful part of the world.

Transylvania does have Gothic castles and there are bats, though no bigger than your fist. But it has so much more – extensive forests; rolling pasture; medieval cities, towns and fortified churches; and an ethnic mix that reflects its extraordinary history.

Transylvania has seen them all; pre-Romans (Celts or whoever they were), Romans (the Emperor Trajan), Huns (that would be Atilla), then an extraordinary cavalcade of people including Saxons and Hungarians who somehow managed to hang on despite the 13th century rampages of the Mongols, then the Ottomans, then the Habsburgs. The treaties that tidied up Europe after WWI took transylvaniaTransylvania from Hungary and gave it to Romania to the enormous dissatisfaction of the nearly 1.6 million Hungarians who found themselves in another country.

But this beautiful land survived. Great forests of mixed deciduous and conifer that provide a huge but sustainable supply of building material and fuel; the forests that once covered most of Europe can still be found here and are still home to bear, deer and wild pig. There are pastures in the valleys and on the broad uplands where the cattle spend the summer. Or, in smaller communities where the families may own but one or two beasts, a communal herder is employed to take the cows up to the high pasture in the morning and down in the evening. As the cattle wend their way down, the gate to their respective barns has been left open and they know where to turn off. The valley pastures are left ungrazed. The grass will be harvested to feed the stock through the winter.

But the tourists come to the German and Hungarian parts of Transylvania to appreciate the built environment. There are many cities and towns to delight the eye, perched on an outcrop or between protecting hills. They are old but as is so often the case, they have been re-built; there have always transylvaniabeen fires and invasions. Much of what we see, is in some cases a 20th century renno! But it does follow an original pattern and gives us something of a window on the past. In particular, the churches; they are the big architectural draw-cards, basically because they were the biggest show in town when built and in some towns, still are. In Transylvania, Christianity is a broad church. Aside from the Latin/Orthodox dichotomy, the Reformation saw the advent of Lutheran and Unitarian communions. And with churches, it is often possible to tell the denomination by the shape of the steeple; not always though, some congregations changed sides and didn’t worry about the steeple. One faith, Islam, is completely absent. The Ottoman advance into Europe, side-stepped Transylvania (‘we’ll deal with you later’) as they marched to Vienna.

A particular feature of Transylvania is the fortified church; in the less mountainous countryside, they abound. Perhaps due to the flatness, the secular lords considered the land indefensible, preferring to build in the mountains. But the flat country was where agriculture was easy and the church, by default, was  the people’s physical protector. Church architecture adapted to the needs of a physical stronghold. Encircling walls, with room for beasts and storage of grain, and a church with narrow ‘arrow slit’ windows attached to a massive square bell tower which was in effect, a fighting platform.

And now it’s mid-August; the cherries and apricots, the earliest fruit of the season have eith­­­­­er been eaten or preserved, now, it’s the plums, they are perfect, the apples will be shortly, then the grapes and finally, come October, the almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts. In the fields, the wheat has been harvested and the grass cut and baled. In September it will be the turn of the corn and sunflowers. It is a fruitful land.

Transylvania, where the Number one brand name is ‘Dracula’. Is the Count the best thing that ever happened to Transylvania? The Marketing Department would surely say ‘Yes’ but as with most sales talk, can you believe it? The truth is, they are right (it’s worth visiting) but for the wrong reason – there is more to Transylvania, much more, than the silly fiction of Dracula.

Written by : Rod Tindall with John Savage

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