Posted on March 21, 2012 in Travels


(a version of this appeared in the Washington Post on Sunday, March 18, 2012. You can read it here.)

At left, the Sighisoara Clock Tower, facing the citadel square. The bright yellow building was the home of Vlad II in the 15th century. His son, Vlad the Impaler, was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

My husband was going to a conference in Sibiu, Romania, for a week late last summer. Would I care to join him, even though he would be in meetings most of the time? Could I keep myself entertained there, alone, in the heart of Transylvania? We had been living in Bulgaria for three months at the time, and though I had traveled to many nooks and crannies of the Balkans, from the Black Sea to Macedonia, I had not crossed the Danube into the land of Dracula.


I’ve read none of the Twilight series, nor a single word of an Ann Rice novel – though a friend did convince me to go see the filmed version of  Interview with the Vampire when it was released in 1994. (It seemed awfully silly to me; all I recall are the sumptuous wardrobes.) Bela Lugosi was the only other vampire I’ve known. But, as a culinary historian, I’ve been intrigued by Transylvania since the release in 1985 of the unusual cookbook, Paul Kovi’s Transylvanian Cuisine, by the former owner and director of The Four Seasons in New York. Unusual not only for its combination of history and folklore, poetry and sociology, but also for the
gastronomy of this melting pot in Middle Europe where Hungarians, Armenians, Saxon Germans, Romanians, and Rroma make their home. (“Gypsy” is considered pejorative.) Inspired by the 1971 classic, The Cuisine of Hungary, Kovi combed through 17th, 18th, and 19th century treatises and called on ten of Transylvania’s best writers to help him evoke the bountiful table of this
corner of Eastern Europe that has always been shrouded in mystery and superstition. What I really wanted to do was to taste
its legendary soups.


Part of Hungary for over one thousand years, Transylvania is now a largely isolated portion of north central Romania, with
no international borders. The surrounding regions – Moldavia, Mamures, Wallachia, and the Banat were even more unknown and mystifying to me, but I planned to explore, in my rental car, as much of this fabled land of mountains and castles as I could in those seven days. Sibiu (Hermannstadt in German, Nagyszeben in Hungarian) is in the south of the region, bordered by the Carpathian Mountains. It has an international airport that is linked to many European cities. We flew from Sofia to Munich, then back
down to Sibiu. It was easier and faster than the drive through the mighty Fagaras range, with its summits over 8000 feet.

The first Eastern European city to be declared a European Capital of Culture, Sibiu seems made for visitors, with modern acommodations and restaurants and an abundance of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Romanian economy is said to be booming, at least partly due to the film industry, and the architecturally fascinating old town, situated on two levels, seems self-possessed, as though it were still the capital of the Transylvanian nation.

In Piata Mare (left)– the “large plaza” – the presence of the Habsburgs is obvious (I’ve seen nothing this grand in Bulgaria), but medieval Saxon buildings sport eye-shaped dormer windows that seemed to follow me everywhere.

There are plenty of shops, museums, churches, and cafes to duck into, as well as other squares, each lined with structures from different eras.
A narrow passageway under the arcade of the Council Tower, originally built as
part of the city’s second ring of forts in the 13th century, leads to Piata Mica
– the handsome “small plaza,” where the so-called Liar’s Bridge (below, left) abuts the
elegant, arcaded Hall of the Butcher’s Guild (below, right) housing an ethnographic museum and
superb gift shop of traditional handmade masks, carvings, fabrics, and
tableware.The cast-iron bridge, the first of its kind in Romania, replaces and earlier rickety wooden one said to collapse if you told a lie while standing on it. The name stuck.


From the bridge,
I was drawn down to the Lower Town, wandering through the medieval streets
where everything isn’t as spruced up, past at least a dozen stores called
Second Hand, and spending a couple of hours in the covered open-air market at
Piata Cibin on the river, using Italian to communicate with the delightful
Magyar, Rroma, and Romanian vendors. As in Bulgaria, I saw plenty of turnips
and beets, but spinach was the only leafy green vegetable other than lettuce.
One Rroma vendor, his hands black from shelling walnuts, wanted to sell me not
only nuts, but parsley root, bright orange catina berries (seabuckthorn), and
Cornelian cherries (the fruit of a dogwood tree). I had no idea how to use
them. The man in the photo at right is preparing parsley root for sale.

Now that Romania
is part of the EU, the butchers and cheesemakers have been moved indoors to a
sterile building fitted with refrigerated cases filled with their wares. Large
hunks of each type of cheese, however, sat atop those coolers, for samples. A
young woman from the neighboring Saxon village of Rasinari
sold me some of her parents’ lovely fresh sheep’s milk cheese (her father, the
shepherd; her mother, the cheesemaker). She spoke English.

The 18
sheep-raising villages surrounding Sibiu
– the Marginimea Sibiului – are remarkable for their preservation of the
traditional crafts of weaving, woodcarving, icon painting, egg coloring, and,
naturally, cheese-making. I drove to nearby Rasinari first, where gaily painted
roadside shrines adorn both country roads and the town square. Transylvanian
kilims hung in the windows of the gingerbread-trimmed houses painted in pastel
colors, like those of Bermuda or Charleston.

Public wells provided water to the citizens who carted buckets back to their
homes embellished with satellite dishes. Potatoes were being harvested in the
surrounding fields, the hay was already stacked, and donkey carts were as
common as automobiles, but the ethnographic museum was closed and on more than
one occasion I turned around because the road turned to dirt and I didn’t feel comfortable,
not speaking  the language and without a
cell phone. Not that that has ever stopped me before.


I probably
should have joined some of the other spouses, who, through the massive, newly
refurbished Continental Forum Hotel (see Details, below) where we were staying, had hired a driver
($150 for the day) to take them on tours of the area. Especially up the
treacherous, awe-inspiring Transfagarasan
Highway – at 7000 feet, the second highest in Europe. Somehow forgetting my fear of heights, I managed
to reach the summit, passing Caspar David Friedrich landscapes at every bend, white-knuckled
all the way.

A soaring monument to the mad Ceausescu’s desire to prove his
might over nature’s, the “highway,” which took five years to build, is a
two-lane blacktop hugging mile-high canyons. It is considered by many to be the
best motorcycle route in the world; I was passed by dozens. I was fortunate to have
bright sun on the climb, but as soon as I reached the peak, chilling clouds
moved in. I walked in one of the restaurants and ordered restorative ciorba
ardeleneasca, a traditional Transylvanian “sour” soup chock full of pork and
potatoes. Chorbas are made sour by the addition of buttermilk, sour cream,
lemon juice, vinegar, or, as in this case, sauerkraut juice. It was delicious.


The hilltop
Saxon villages are famous for their fortified churches, several of which have
been restored. In Cisnadioara, I climbed to the summit overlooking the apple
orchards, then ordered the homemade lard spread and the apple soup from the German
menu at the pension overlooking the town square, at the foot of the citadel. I
could have been in Bavaria or in Adams County, Pennsylvania.
Doors were closed and several of the villages I visited appeared empty, but
people were there, and working. In the valley towns, houses were built adjacent
to each other, flanking the roads, with high walls; their back yards border
rivers and streams. The weaving, cheese making, and embroidery is carried on
behind those doors, while the shepherds tend their flocks in the neighboring
hills and vales. In spite of the presence of Hungarians, Saxons, and Turks,
Romanians have managed to preserve their Romance language, often described as
the closest living language to classical Latin.


En route to
Sighisoara, the iconic, castle-topped 12th century citadel, I sped through the
the Tarnave River Valley
on the well-maintained, walnut-lined Highway 14. Outside Brateiu, an odd
collection of unfinished Rroma homes flanked the road, with striking displays
of copper cauldrons, stills, and trays for sale. I spent several hours with the
Nicolae Caldarar family, who, when it became obvious that I was not going to
buy anything, invited me into their home for coffee.

Often mistakenly identified as
“Gabor gypsies”  because of similar clothing, these non-traveling Rroma have been living in the same area for
over 300 years, they told me in Italian. Their name – Caldarar– means coppersmith;
Gabori are tinsmiths. I asked why they didn’t take their stunning copperware –
all pounded by hand, with hammers on anvils – to cities where they might better
be exposed to potential customers, and they told me that they, indeed, go to Budapest twice a year.
“You mean Bucharest,”
I said. “No, Budapest,”
they insisted. “We consider ourselves Hungarian.” They have probably been in
the area a lot longer than three centuries, but it is hard to trace their
history since the 15th-century Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Bram
Stoker’s Dracula, annihilated untold thousands of members of the lower classes,
including the Rroma.


The Old
Town of Sighisoara rises up over the newer sections hugging theTarnave in an
astonishing display of Saxon architectural styles clinging to the rocky massif.
I was mesmerized. Perhaps there is something to this Dracula tale, I thought,
as climbed narrow stairs banked here and there with covered walkways –
protections, I would learn, from heavy snowfalls. (See photo, below.)

There are fine restored homes
and churches, castles and torture chambers. Nine of the citadel’s original
fourteen towers, built by the craftsmen guilds that maintained them, still
stand. The stunning rustic baroque Clock Tower (photo at top of page) has moving wooden figures that
emerge at 6 am and 6 pm; on the Citadel side, Peace, Justice, and Law appear
with angels representing day and night; on the Lower Town side, seven pagan
gods representing the days of the week are cranked out automatically, keeping
time the way a clock has in this tower for over 500 years. The tower houses an
interesting museum that is overshadowed by the marvelous views from an upper
wrap-around balcony (above). Back down on the square, once home to beheadings, Vlad’s home
is marked with a plaque, and the plaza is lined with terrace cafes and shops
hawking tacky Dracula souvenirs. There was a film crew working with some
vintage cars, and I could see why the tour buses line up in the summer.


I had unwittingly
saved the best for last. My husband tacked on an extra night to our stay, and
we spent the entire last day at the appealing Museum of Traditional Folk
Civilization, known as ASTRA (see Details, below).

Just outside Sibiu on the edge of the Dumbrava Forest,
it is a 250-acre open-air museum that makes Colonial Williamsburg look like a
tiny theme park. Begun in the early 60s, the museum is a recreation of Romanian
rural life that features 150 historical structures that have been moved to the
museum and restored. It offers a peek into the world of hunters, fishermen,
shepherds, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, weavers, and potters. There are two
churches, both still in use, and a field of windmills. There’s an early
industrial complex for finishing textiles, a gold mine, and a water-powered
sawmill. I felt like a kid again as I peered into the candle maker’s workshop
and the goatherd’s mountain hut (below). 

restaurant on the grounds is part of the museum, a village tavern from a region
between Transylvania and Muntenia, famous for
its plum brandy (“tzuica”). The inn was built in 1850 by a family who used it
as their shop, pub, and lodge, until 1952. I had been told by some of the other
spouses to be sure to eat there. I thought of Paul Kovi when I ordered the
cabbage cooked in bacon with the homemade sausages. They were grilled over an
open fire by a zaftig cook who grimaced when I took her picture. After we ate,
spicing our meals with fresh hot peppers they served as garnish, I went back,
sans camera, and gave her the thumbs up symbol. She beamed.


Sibiu International Airport (SBZ), 5 km from the city
center, has connecting flights to many major European cities, especially in Germany and Italy. Thrifty, Avis, Europcar, and
Alamo have rental offices in the airport.

The recently refurbished, grand Continental Forum Hotel
anchors an upper corner of the historic district and provides excellent convention
services. The concierge can arrange personal tours and drivers. Rooms run about


Most restaurants offer traditional Balkan cuisine, pizzas,
or cafe fare. The one excellent exception we found in Sibiu was the (then 3-month-old)
a modern Italian restaurant with white-glove service and stellar cuisine.
Located in an old warehouse a couple of blocks behind the big old Soviet era
department store. Dinner for two, with appetizers and wine, about $60.

Sub Cetate Pensione, on the square in Cisnadioara, offers
rooms, conference facilities and traditional Saxon dishes.

Muzeul Civilizatiei Populare Traditionale (ASTRA) just
outside Sibiu
is an intriguing folkways museum on 250 acres. Open daily May-Oct 10am-8pm;
Nov-Apr 9am-5pm; $5. Throughout the year, various festivals are held there; the
day we visited, there was a market of traditional Romanian foods, much of which
is featured at the very good Hanul Rustic, the restored old tavern on the