Trip to Transylvania

Tranquil in Transylvania

Transylvania is a surprising destination. A very discrete province of Romania surrounded by a horeshoe of mountains, it has the ambiance of the swiss alps but retains a medieval character to its countryside and the language has the musical lilt of Italian. Astonishingly, Transylvania’s most famous fictional character, Count Dracula, doesn’t actually feature much here ‘He’s not real!’ was the explanation I was given for this. I knew that.
This summer I was lucky enough to get a place on a PRIDE adult education trip to Transylvania. PRIDE is the acronym for the Partnership for Rural Improvement and Development in Europe, in case you are thinking otherwise, and is supported by the EU Erasmus Plus programme.
This course was about looking at the issues around sustainability in the mountains of rural Romania and it was my first trip to this part of the world.

A rural way of life

Travelling from Luton airport on Wizzair (it’s quite tricky to get to Transylvania) we arrived at the Romanian city of Cluj Napoca and met up with our hosts Martin and Monica. We travelled to our guest house in Alba via the rather picturesque town of Turda (make sure you roll the ‘r’!) and had our first Transylvanian meal which was substantial and delicious. Portion size is not an issue in Transylvania and you will not go hungry with the cuisine here, which I have to say was one of the highlights for me – more of which later.

A light lunch

The first night we experienced an amazing storm over the mountains with huge forks of lightening and booming thunder which went on for several hours. We had to get up to watch it as it was so spectacular – Dracula would have loved it.

It was a dark and stormy night…

The next day we popped out to see some archaeology students who were excavating what looked to me, like the foundations for a small swimming pool, in the middle of a field. The head of the dig somehow started telling me about life in Communist Romania which was a dark time in the country’s history, under the dictatorship of the very unpleasant Nicoleae Ceausescu who was executed in 1989. The archaeology professor felt that Romania has a lot of catching up to do with the rest of Europe. There is a big road building programme going on here so that should open up things up for better transport and tourism, but more people have left Romania than any other Eastern European country to seek their fortune elsewhere.

Yes, it’s definitely a hole

All along the roadsides are cows and sheep grazing and being incredibly well behaved. Fences aren’t big here because there’s always someone with the live stock, and there is mutual bond between man and animal which has long since been lost with the adoption of industrial farming methods. As Martin said ‘The sheep love the shepherd – they’d do anything for him!’ Goats are a bit more naughty apparently – I can imagine that would be the case.

An alpine idyll

We headed off for Rimet village in the Transylvanian mountains where we stayed in the school hostel. The school once had 600 pupils but now had only five – an indication of how these rural agricultural villages and ways of living are dying out. Our expert guide Monica Oprean was an absolute mine of information about these parts and her specialism is the mountain hamlets hereabouts and the unique steep pitch roofed houses which are still made as they were in medieval times. Monica speaks perfect English and also has a particular understanding and appreciation of English humour which was a unexpected and welcome surprise. The locals also do a pretty special line in haystacks here, as fields are still harvested by hand and their distinctive pointed profiles are dotted all across the emerald landscape.

Top haystackery

Romania is alone in the European union in still having some functioning medieval landscapes which have great cultural social and environmental sustainability but are struggling economically. The challenge is to preserve the unique mountain landscape while opening it up for use by visitors in a way that respects and protects the villages and their way of life.
The mountains here really are stunning. Covered in thousands of Alpine flowers and thick virgin forest which is home to bears, wolves and lynx, it is better than any scene out of the Sound of Music. However ‘High on a Hill was a lonely Goatherd’ did become the theme song of the trip aka
‘Folks in a town that was quite remote heard,
fresh from the throat of the lonely Goatherd..’ and you can yodel the rest yourself. 

Our house

We were in a small village where one of the old style local houses had been reconstructed and needed to be finished off. Our task was to try lime and sand rendering, create some lime paints tinted with natural products and to conduct a level one building survey. The plastering activity took a little while to get going as there was a lot of experimentation with the consistency of the lime and sand mix but once we got into the swing of things, it was great fun. Our pedestrian efforts were rather shown up though by the appearance of Marius, an expert local builder, who slapped the grey mixture onto the rough walls with a definite flourish and covered things up quickly and professionally while giving us some rudimentary instruction into the bargain. 

Getting plastered

It was actually jolly good fun, as was experimenting with creating natural paint pigments. Charcoal added to the lime made a sort of dark air force grey/blue, egg yolk, a lovely buttery yellow, chewed up plum a light appley green and horse manure a sort of predictable horse manure browny green. Our efforts to make a chicory blue paint by stuffing blue flowers into the mix were however pretty much a total failure. 

Home made paints – who needs Dulux?

We tried some Romanian beer which was actually very good – the arrival of the beer truck at this remote location was quite an event. One of the top Romanian brands is Ursus – the bear.

The beer truck is leaving!

Dinner back at the school was substantial and very fresh local food. Spicy sausages, cabbage, salad lots of fresh bread. The local wine here is very good too, and we also got to try some of the Mayor’s home made plum brandy which I became particularly partial to.

Taste of Transylvania

 It had been a long day and as I fell asleep in my bunk bed full of one of the remaining pupil’s cuddly toys left here over the holidays, I thought that I was going to like Transylvania.