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The International Writers Magazine: Travel Archives

Back in Transylvania
• Josef Oberwinzer
“I hope it will be totally crazy” was my new German friend's mantra ever since we agreed to drive to Transylvania together.

Romania Map

For my part, I already had an idea about craziness. In almost fifteen years of to and fro across Europe I have seen more crazy things than I can tell while having beers with friends.

Frankly, even this fifty years young at heart comrade who was taking me to my homeland in his thirty-something years old Mercedes jalopy, listening all the way to all kinds of loud, deep underground music, wasn't a real standard for normality. No wonder he wanted a “totally crazy” experience. But what could that mean to him? For I was 100% sure we won't find in Transylvania the kind of craziness he was used to back home in Berlin and I was afraid I would implacably have to deal with a disappointed travel companion.

My fears proved groundless as soon as we've crossed the border and stopped to have lunch. That was in Satu Mare, the biggest town of Romania's north-westernmost corner. We parked the car close to the city center and entered the first place marked as Restaurant.

It was a big hall with some twenty well spaced out tables and no one inside. White tablecloths, old-looking plates and glasses, out of fashion arrangements. That was unmistakably authentic. And here comes the waitress (the only one) – a stout woman in her early fifties, dressed in a black and white uniform, with a helmet-like bulk of steely hair, with a lot of blue around her eyes and no smile.

We sat at the table that she chose for us. There was no need to get the menus: they had only one kind of soup (with meat and vegetables), only two main dishes (fried fish and pork steak with vegetables) and ice-cream for dessert. They also had several kinds of spirits, some wine and local beer, both with alcohol and alcohol free. Each of us ordered everything, from soup to ice-cream. Then we waited, sipping our beers.

This was far from the communist-chic cafés my friend new in Berlin. This was a real dinosaur which somehow outlived the red paradise's collapse. I always marvel when I find one of these relics. Their combination of scarce offer and working class mimics of refinement gives them a special savour. Surviving communist hotels look and smell as if no one ever entered there during the last 25 years. Surviving communist restaurants seem to have never experienced a broken glass. Even the people working in such places have something of a museum exhibition. They move, but they don't have the same gestures as the others. They speak, but their words and the tone of their voices come from the past.

Our food was served in no time. We ate under the constantly surveying eyes of the waitress. She hardly let us breathe for a minute between the soup and the main course but that didn't bother us as the food was tastier than expected. Some other clients came in and the waitress welcomed them in her sober manner. By that time I really hoped that the newcomers would distract her. The portions were rather big and now we would have appreciated some rest. No chance. Our ice-creams were brought as soon as we finished the meat. Then even prompter came the bill. It all cost us about five or six euros each.

We made up our minds for a walk in the city center which is not as big as that. It is not beautiful either, but it is interesting. Well, as interesting as can be a wild mixture of elegant Austro-Hungarian Secession style buildings and clumsy Romanian communist style concrete mastodons. The most beautiful buildings are also the most decrepit, while the ugliest are fairly well kept.

That may sound absurd, but it isn't. It's just a small and subtle part of the communist heritage. Old beautiful edifices, formerly in private property, have been confiscated by the communist state some 65 years ago. After the regime fell down in December 1989, the previous owners thought they might recover their belongings from the state. Court actions ensued. Thus today an abandoned beautiful building could point out a rotten legal battle. By contrast, the ugliest ones had no legal problems as they were built by the communists themselves.

In a broader sense, everything in Satu Mare is just as interesting as the architectural mix. Take for instance the other restaurants in the city center, those which have tens of dishes and hordes of clients. Most of them propose a hybrid menu of Italian and Romanian cuisine. Why Italian? Certainly not only for the fame of it. During the last ten years or so, many Romanians lived and worked in Italy. Then they turned back with new tastes and know how. The best part of this mass adventure is that Italian food in Romania is about as good as in Italy. Consider in addition that the Romanian cuisine is in itself a conglomerate of Central European and Balkan / Near East recipes. Finally, those who gather around tables in these restaurants speak both Romanian and Hungarian. (Twenty-something years ago one could also hear German around the corner, but alas!, that's no longer the case.) And no, they are no tourists, but natives.

We didn't waste much time and we hit the road. We headed north-east, towards the Ukrainian border, in order to get to the heart of Maramures region. The road passes through several villages. Now don't expect anything idyllic. There are no cobblestone streets and only here and there can one see an old ramshackle wooden house, with a shingle (or, even more sporadically, a straw-thatched) roof, abandoned and with poor perspectives of survival in the next few years. At the very best, these villages are somewhat exotic. Front yards display the latest SUVs, often parked by a horse pulled wagon obviously still in use. If the SUVs fail to transmit a clear enough message, then the growing number of big brand new houses painted in strident colours plainly reveal the owners' dreams of grandeur and local fame.

At the frontline of this rural social trend is Certeze, which we couldn't avoid. All the young dwellers of this village went to work in Italy and Spain at the beginning of the century. They sent money back home at a time when one could raise a villa in Romanian countryside with as little as ten to fifteen thousand euros. Wherever you look now in Certeze you'll see deliberately oversize houses. Most of them are not inhabited. The younger ones moved to the city or rooted themselves in their new countries. Their parents, if still alive, prefer the old smaller house hidden behind the monumental symbol of the family's wellbeing.

Sapanta Our next stop was at Sapanta's Merry Cemetery. That's no Dracula inspired tourist trap, but a genuine, still widening cemetery. Every dead here has a blue cross. On it, in two naively carved and painted images supported by a few humorous verses, is depicted the subject's life and death. Everything is done with a thorough respect for the truthfulness of that life's history: the drunkard is figured as a drunkard, the one who loved too much and too many of his fellow creatures will forever be remembered as such and the serious honest man stays serious even in the colourful pictures of his own cross.
We continued our journey to Sighetu Marmatiei where we visited the Memorial of the Victims of Communism. That's nothing like Auschwitz. This was an exclusivist extermination place. A significant part of Romania's prewar political and intellectual elite has been tortured to death between the walls of this small prison.

The exhibition is not limited to the history of the place, but covers the whole of the communist extermination politics applied all over the country. Besides, there are no tourists smiling at cameras in front of torture chambers. Maybe that's partly due to the fact that, as for many westerners communism is not even half as popularly gruesome as Nazism, most visitors are Romanians.
Memorial Building

Up to Sighetu Marmatiei we have taken the highway called “national road.” These roads are in pretty good shape all over the country. Driving on them is a real pleasure, especially in the hilly and mountainous Transylvania where the roads are winding all the time.

There are also some inconveniences, but many of them are nothing compared to the fact that “national roads” pass through villages. Keep in mind Transylvanians like to show off and boast about everything they have. In rural areas, most of them built their houses on the main road. That makes miles long sausage-like villages. And you cannot drive through at full speed. Add to that the traffic habits: many local drivers take themselves for some unfairly undiscovered race car champions. I imagine these details don't get on your nerves when you first drive in this country, but in time they may develop into a source of frustration.

In Sighetu Marmatiei we have shifted to a county road which leads to Poienile Izei, a small village at the end of the world where we have chosen to spend the night. Be prepared for a complete interactive show whenever you leave the highway for most side roads: holes in the tarmac, scared chickens speeding up ahead of your car, small dogs furiously barking at your wheels, placid cows turning back from the pastures in the evening, irresponsible cyclists perfectly and entirely camouflaged in the dark and the like. We had plenty of these before we reached our destination and all of them did their best in order to keep our attention constantly alert.

Palinca Ioan and his wife were waiting for us. We sat at the table without losing more time. Before seeing any food, we had to take a shot of palinca. That's a plum brandy, 60% of which is alcohol. It was followed by another shot of sour cherry flavoured brandy which burnt just as much as the first one. In the meantime, a bean soup with smoked ham appeared on the table. Then another shot of raspberry flavoured brandy.

As main course we had mamaliga (a sort of porridge of maize flour) and papricas de pui (otherwise known as paprikáscsirke or paprika hendl) which is the dish Jonathan Harcker feasted on before meeting Count Dracula. That was a nice surprise, since one can rarely find it in restaurants. The house lady told us that the chicken we were eating was still alive earlier that afternoon.

This remark opened a whole new subject of conversation. Everything we were eating and drinking was homemade organic food. The vegetables were cultivated by Ioan and his wife. All the meat, egg and milk products came from home-grown animals. The next morning they were going to sacrifice another pig. “Come and see how we do it,” said Ioan. We kindly turned down his invitation.

Then they brought homemade cakes and homemade wine – a gift from one of their sons-in-law who lives in southern Transylvania. Bad homemade wine has a dubious colour and is sensibly sour. Good homemade wine has a fancy colour which can range from pale gold to dark red, is slightly sour and has a distinctive grape and aromatic herbs smack. It can be mildly sparkling. The alcohol content has a pronounced tendency to be rather high, which, according to the general consumption situation, makes these wines propitious to either meditation or contagious laughing bursts. Our wine was one of the best.

When the carafe was half empty, Ioan took out his violin and started to play a primitively simple and powerful music. He knew nothing about reading and writing notes. He learned to play just by looking and listening to other violin players. As he told us later, they all improvise on some themes they heard from older musicians many years ago, when they were young.

Finally he sat at our table and started telling us stories. First, about the important people he knew. Among them, the French and the German ambassadors in Bucharest who love to hike in the surrounding mountains because nobody knows them here. One day they ended up eating and sleeping at Ioan's farm stay. That must be funny for an ambassador to have dinner, bed and breakfast for twenty euros. Then he told us about how the world looked like when he was young and he was playing his violin at Romanian, Hungarian, Ukrainian and Jewish marriages in all the villages of his valley.

By now, my friend was releasing a “Wahnsinn!” exclamation every few minutes. He started to punctuate his discourse with “Wahnsinn” (which is the German for “crazy”) at lunch and the more we drove through Transylvania's northern vicinity, the greater the rate of his testimony. I had to get used to it for this was but the first day of our two weeks long tour through one of the least known, most challenging and loveliest (for me) European regions: Transylvania.

© Josef Oberwinzer June 2015
joberwinzer at
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