I normally do not write about my travels in Eastern and Central Europe unless they are connected with a teaching assignment or some other professional activity that gives insight into the educational, legal, business and political workings of a country that are not available to a tourist. In particular, the views of students as to the conditions and the future of their country cannot be gathered as a sightseeing tourist. But, Romania proved so interesting, I am making an exception.
I had no particular interest in Romania as a country. I have, however, been fascinated by the Carpathian Mountains. This fascination came from several sources: a book entitled Blood on Snow, which discusses the winter campaign of 1914-1915 in WWI, between Austria, Hungary, and Russia; another book entitled The Transylvanian Trilogy, by Miklos Banffy, a Hungarian (most of the Carpathians were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time), which addresses life in the Mountains in the decades leading up to WWI; and a National Geographic article on rural life in the Carpathians documenting it as one of the least developed and most naturally beautiful areas of Europe.
THE CARPATHIANS AND ROMANIA
The Carpathians are a relatively low (2000 M) but extremely steep and rugged mountain range. They consist of the Southern, Eastern, Northern and to a lesser extent, Western ranges. They almost completely encircle, with a gap in the Northwest, the region of Transylvania. There are only a limited number of routes over them and each is a beautiful, if not hair-raising, series of narrow switchbacks. It is hard to imagine what it was like to cross these mountains in WWI with an army in the winter and without the current roads.
The mountains at various times and even currently are, at least partially, in the political boundaries of several countries: Hungary, Ukraine, Serbia, but now mostly Romania. At the start of WWI, the region of Transylvania and major parts of the mountains were in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and regarded as a significant barrier between Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empires. Their history is sufficiently confusing that the first decision in planning a trip was where to start – Bucharest, Romania became the obvious choice.
ROMANIA – A PLACE AND A COUNTRY
Like many other countries in Eastern and Central Europe, the current country name is more reflective of a people and a culture than a long-defined geopolitical entity.
• A Brief History Of Romania
Romania was initially inhabited by a group called the Dacians who were eventually conquered by and incorporated into the Roman Empire. Their language is based on Latin and today’s Romanian is identifiably a romance language written in the Latin alphabet. This is in contrast to most of their direct neighbors, e.g., Bulgaria, Ukraine, who speak a Slavic language written in the Cyrillic alphabet, and the incomprehensible language of Hungary.
As the Roman Empire disintegrated, the area that now constitutes Romania consolidated into three kingdoms: Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania. The borders of these entities were in constant flux and it is still a regional joke that one can go to bed as a Ukrainian, wake up as a Moldovan and go to bed again as a Romanian. Each of these entities (if something so fluid can be called an entity), was at various times part of the Ottoman and Holy Roman Empires, the Kingdom of Hungary, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Due to war and plagues, the region of Transylvania was only sparsely populated by the 12th and 13th centuries. This left a large open space to the East of the Hungarian empire and fertile territory for invading armies. To correct this problem, German settlers were encouraged. They built seven major fortified towns, which still exist today – Sibiu, Cluj, Sighetul-Marmatiei, Gura-Humorului, Sighisoara, and Brasov. These towns have a distinctly German “feel” and indeed each one still has both a Romanian and a German name, e.g., Sibiu is also Hermannstadt. The fortified towns had several defensive towers; each tower was built, maintained and, in times of war, manned by a separate guild. At one of the towers, a group of young men in clothes distinctly of several centuries ago were making repairs with tools, also of a design of several centuries ago. We learned that they are part of a program to maintain old trades. Following the rules of the carpenters’ guild of the 14th-15th century, they were at the journeyman stage. They had to move from location to location every three months (i.e., journeyman) for three years. At the end, they became master carpenters. They could not return home, use cell phones or even land lines, and generally lived as much as possible as guild members of 500-600 years ago.
A historical atlas would be months of work so I will skip a few centuries to 1859 when, with the role of the Ottoman Empire fading, Wallachia and Moldova signed a Union becoming Romania and appointed King Carlo I, a prince of the German Hohenzollern family, as monarch.
The early 20th Century brought the demise of the Ottoman Empire as most Eastern European countries sought some degree of independence and fought among themselves over boundaries. Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but totally muddled about whether German or Hungarian should be the official language, whether ethnic Romanians were entitled to certain civil rights, etc.
Romania (as in Wallachia and Moldova) remained neutral in WWI until 1916. It then decided to join Russia and the Western Allies because it offered an opportunity to gain Transylvania from Austria-Hungary in a post-war settlement. For a while, the decision seemed like a disaster. Russia left the War in 1917 and Romania’s old-fashioned army was totally outnumbered and outmanned by the Austro-Hungarian and German armies. In the end, however, they were on the right side and Transylvania was awarded to them through the Treaty of Versailles and its progeny.
I have always been interested in WWI and in my European travels seek out the WWI memorials in the towns I visit. Perhaps some of you have seen these memorials to “The Great War” where, especially in the United Kingdom, sometimes ten or more men of the same family name died in the same month at one of the great fiascoes of the Western Front like the Somme. In Romania, I found the same such memorials with the same sad history of names indicating the end of a family. The interesting difference was, there was no reference to WWI or the “Great War;” the memorials were for the War of Romanian Unification and the dates were 1916-1918, not 1914-1918. While the Western World fought “the war to end all wars,” the Romanians saw a much more limited purpose to their sacrifices.
The final piece of Romania’s current border was decided at the end of WWII. The Romanians joined the Axis powers and for their efforts lost the eastern most part of the region of Moldova, which is now a small separate country. The penalty for picking the losing side was actually more severe, as Romania was subjected to an extremely oppressive communist regime until the early 1990’s.
Not being involved with the academic or legal community, my knowledge of the overall political and economic situation came from observation and random conversations. The first impression was, of course, the airport and the capital city of Bucharest. The airport was modern and appropriate in size with amenities for a city of 2,000,000. Bucharest is in transition. The architecture of the older part of the City is late 19th/early 20th century. When communism ended, property was returned to its pre-revolution owners. Some of the returned buildings have been modernized; others reflect decades of neglect. There are a lot of trees and parks, a few modern buildings and, on the outskirts, the ubiquitous concrete apartment blocks of the soviet era. All in all, it is a pleasant city.
The dictator through most of the communist period was Nicolae Ceausecu. Ceausecu was mostly hated but did a few things that were admired, like completely paying off all of Romania’s foreign debt. This act, although admirable in one sense, placed a tremendous burden on the population. Investment and goods that could have stayed in Romania were exported to pay the debt. He also undertook a massive public works project in the form of a monstrosity of a palace. It is reportedly the second largest office building in the world after the Pentagon. It consumed a great amount of resources, again leaving little for the population. The building was and remains unnecessary – a monument to one man’s ego.
Some of you may also remember that Ceausecu made abortion illegal. This led to hundreds of thousands of abandoned children and truly horrific state orphanages. When Ceausecu was deposed in 1991, there was a movement in the west to adopt from these orphanages, but it proved difficult because many of the children had severe psychological problems. Ceausecu was shot shortly after he was deposed. There is no nostalgia for the “good old days” of Communism.
In addition to the Carpathians, our tour took us to the countryside. The Carpathians surround Transylvania, which is a high plateau primarily used for agriculture. It reminded me a great deal of Central/Western Montana although it gets more rain and is therefore greener than Montana.
Outside the cities, small farm agriculture is dominant. Indeed, it was the promise of rural life of a century ago that was one of the reasons for our trip. Traditional clothing is becoming rare but still visible. We stayed in a small village and were entertained by traditional dancers— clearly for the benefit of tourists but a skill that is being preserved. Traditional clothing is still worn on Sundays and holidays, for watching the goats or herding sheep.
It was haying season and there are a variety of different types of haystacks, all stacked by hand. It was interesting to notice that it was always the women who lifted the hay up to the top of the stack, while the men arranged it. We saw numerous hay wagons and all of them were horse drawn; not a single tractor. Wagons were also used for most other farm purposes like taking the pig to market. Most of the farm houses, however, had automobiles, and I could not tell if tractors were used for other types of farm work like plowing and mowing. But, the movement of hay was all by horse. It was also the early harvest season: vegetables, peaches, plums, and especially watermelons. Every town had a produce market and the prices were incredibly low, e.g., a kilo (2.2 lbs.) of vine-ripened tomatoes were less than USD .50, watermelons were .75/kilo and the sweetest any of us had ever eaten. Indeed, eating in Romania was a treat. The food was fresh and excellent and it was hard to spend more than USD 10/person including beer, wine, and the mandatory after dinner brandy.
Virtually everyone in Romania distills their own brandy. It is made from a variety of fruits: plum is probably the most popular, but cherry, strawberry, raspberry, grape and others are also widely consumed. It is sold at roadside stands, usually in reused plastic soda bottles, at about USD 5/liter.
Other traditional skills were also regularly used. A particularly unusual one was the use of a man-made whirlpool for washing carpets. Water is diverted from a stream into a mixer, which spins like the rinse cycle in a modern washer – very efficient.
Communication was quite easy as the cell phone network was excellent and every hotel or guest house had reliable Wi-Fi. The roads were in good condition; however, there simply were not enough of them for the traffic. On the other hand, the railroad system was antiquated and unreliable. I have noticed this in other Eastern and Central European countries. The investment has been in roads, not railroads. Somewhat disconcerting was the natural gas distribution system in rural areas. It was all above ground and not in the best state of repair.
Finally, a fascinating aspect of the countryside is the migratory storks. They spend the winters in Africa but return to Romania (and other countries in the region) in late March and early April. They build their nests in high places. When we arrived in July, most of the young storks had fledged. What was striking was the number of nests. Every light pole on some streets had a nest.
FORTS, CHURCHES, FORTIFIED CHURCHES, MONASTERIES
The region that now constitutes Romania is bordered on the south and east by what constituted the Ottoman Empire until the mid-19th Century. The Ottoman Empire, like other empires, expanded and contracted during its life before its final demise in 1918. Also, Ottoman control took many different forms. Some parts of what is now Eastern Europe were provinces of the Empire, others were somewhat independent as long as they provided the Sultan with money, military support, etc. Regardless, Romania was almost always on the border and if, nothing else, the battleground between the Ottomans and the West, between Islam and Christianity.
Not only was Romania on the border of Islam and Christianity, it was on the border of Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and later, because of the German Saxons, of Roman Catholicism and the Lutheran Church. The result of all this is a landscape of forts, churches, fortified churches and monasteries.
Forts were secular structures. They were typically built on strategic highpoints, but were only manned and used when all other defenses had failed. Most of them have been neglected for centuries although a few are being restored. Nevertheless, they are impressive edifices and the prospect of assaulting one on its precipice still appears daunting. A particularly foreboding fort was built in a mountain pass by Count Dracula, allegedly by slave labor in a matter of weeks.
Transylvania was colonized by Germans, primarily from Saxony. Their religion was Roman Catholicism and the churches and monasteries they built were obviously to celebrate that faith. The unique aspect was that many of them in smaller cities and towns were also fortresses, as were many of the monasteries. These fortifications were a first line of defense against mercenaries and even more serious invading armies. When things got too serious, everyone withdrew to the actual fortresses. Many of these monasteries and churches have been or are in the process of being restored, not as relics of the past but as active places of worship and, in the case of monasteries, retreats. There are hundreds of them. When the Protestant reformation started in Germany, it spread to the Transylvanian Saxons and many of the churches were converted to Lutheran.
In their continual war with the Ottomans, it was common practice for victories to be celebrated with the construction of either a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox monastery, depending on the belief of the General. The notorious Count Dracula was, among other things, an extremely successful General and commissioned several monasteries. Some of the most magnificent are the painted monasteries. The interiors of all the churches are full of frescoes and paintings, but the painted monasteries are unique in that the exteriors are covered with beautiful murals. One of the most popular themes of the murals was judgment day. Many of these paintings are centuries old and reasonably well-preserved.
Northern Transylvania is heavily forested and is known as the Maramures Region. Woodcarving is a highly developed art form, which is not only in every village, but most farms and homes have elaborately carved wooden gates. In fact, in this region, most of the churches are built with wood. They all date from the late 18th century because an invasion by the Ottomans in the middle of that century burned most of the existing ones. Some are quite large and others can hold only a few parishioners. However, in spite of its hundreds of churches and monasteries, there are several new ones under construction. Indeed, there seems to be some considerable debate over whether the country has prioritized properly its needs as new church construction apparently exceeds new hospital construction.
As mentioned above, a particular motivation for visiting the Carpathians was the book The Transylvanian Trilogy, written by Banffy. The book is based on the author’s family and describes the family estate in detail. For those of you who have read it, you will have formed a picture of its beauty. Unfortunately, WWII and decades of neglect have left little. It is under restoration, but it appears to be a process of decades.
GYPSIES (NOT ROMA)
Anyone who has recently traveled in Europe, especially southern Europe, has undoubtedly run into gypsies and either seen their encampments or been harassed by their begging. During a walk to our hotel in Bucharest after dinner, we were set upon by a loud noisy pack of gypsy children. They were quite persistent and it took a few minutes before they gave up and went in search of easier prey. They are often referred to as Roma and believed to come primarily from Romania.
A part of our trip was a visit to a gypsy family and they were very clear that “gypsy” is the proper term – not “Roma.” We visited an extended family compound. The spokespersons were two lovely sisters who spoke excellent English learned from watching American television shows. A brief summary of what we learned was that gypsies originally emigrated from India. There is a definite caste system and the family we visited was of the highest caste known as Gabors. Gabors are metal workers – a trade which takes years to learn and provides a good income. Gypsy marriages are arranged by parents at an early age (12-13 for girls; 16-17 for boys). Although the boy may opt out of a selected bride, the girl seldom can. Weddings are held as soon as the girl reaches puberty. Children seldom go to school and the State does not require it. Divorces are extraordinarily rare. Families live together with the wife moving to the husband’s home. Four generations in a home is the norm. They have a separate language, which is an adaptation of several other languages, but is not written. There is almost never marriage outside the group and little effort to integrate. They are not, however, nomadic and most live in their own villages.
Probably the greatest boon to Romanian tourism is Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula.” Indeed, the very mention of Transylvania conjures up Dracula and vampires. There was a Count Dracula and he was a very bloody minded character, but hardly a vampire. Moreover, many of Stoker’s references are to actual identifiable locations in Romania, although they have no relationship to the historical Dracula and he lived many centuries before Stoker’s 19th century creation. The word Dracula is a real Romanian word indicating a title – it is probably roughly translated as “Duke.” Both the infamous Dracula and his father had this title.
Dracula was born in 1431 in the town of Sighisoara. His birthplace is now a restaurant and of course, we had dinner there. Yes, blood soup is on the menu, although it tasted very much like tomato soup. Dracula’s real name was Vlad Tepes. Tepes is still a common name and one that we noticed on one of the war memorials.
As set forth above, there was almost constant warfare between the Ottoman Empire and the various Christian rulers of Eastern and Central Europe. Vlad’s father reached a peace treaty with the Ottomans and as was common practice at the time, sent Vlad and his brother to the Sultan to guarantee the treaty. If it was broken, Vlad and his brother would have been sacrificed.
Fortunately Vlad’s father honored the treaty, but not before Vlad was well schooled in the various means of torture and execution employed by the Ottomans. When he became a ruler, his preferred method of execution was impalement and thus his nickname, “Vlad the Impaler.” It was a ruthless time and he thrived in this environment. Among other anecdotes, he was once visited by embassies of the Sultan; they knelt, but refused to remove their hats. He asked them why and they replied that it was not their custom to remove their hats for anybody other than their Sultan. Vlad said he believed this to be a good custom and to strengthen their observance of it had their hats nailed to their heads.
Vlad’s nickname, however, comes from his use of impalement as a form of execution for criminals and political enemies. However unpopular this may have been him in his own time, he is well regarded by Romanian history primarily because he thwarted an Ottoman invasion by the same army that had conquered Constantinople. Vastly outnumbered, he used Guerilla tactics. Among other things, he impaled over 20,000 Turkish prisoners and set them up for miles along the Ottoman’s path. This so dismayed the invaders that they abandoned their campaign and returned to their own territory. Vlad had saved his country from the Ottomans – the same army that had ended the Byzantine Empire a few years earlier.
The Dracula of myth did not live in Transylvania. His kingdom was the province of Wallachia. Dracula’s castle, known as Bran Castle, is a real place, but it was not built until the 18th century, whereas Vlad died in the 15th century. It is a major tourist attraction. Any reader of Stoker’s novel will understand its layout. Not only was it not built until 300 years after Dracula’s death, it is physically located several hundred miles from where Stoker places it, which is the actual location of a castle that Vlad had built. This combination of myth and reality gives the Dracula story its special appeal.
I will be teaching this year at the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University located in Kaliningrad, Russia (formerly Königsberg, East Prussia). I taught in Russia in 2006 and I am very interested to see how the more expansive and confident Russia of 2015 under Vladimir Putin is regarded by my students.