Thursday, October 6, 2011

Never Run With A Wooden Stake

We have been travelling through the Transylvania region of Romania now for three days. Our border crossing from Serbia was at Vrsac and we stayed the first night in the city of Timisoara, Romania's 4th largest city at 300,000 and notable for its large ethnic Hungarian population. There are surrounding towns that speak nothing but Hungarian and it was here in Timisoara's town square that the 1989 revolution began at the urging of a social activist Hungarian priest. Virtually every city in the country has a Decembrie 20 1989 thoroughfare.
Timisoara Metropolitan Eastern Orthodox

The next day we made out for Sibiu, the former capital of the old Saxon district of Transylvania. This 300 km. 6.5 hour drive involved navigating a twisty narrow 2 lane main highway that was heavily trafficked with large transports. The lack of passing lanes, shoulders and heavy police presence made it exhausting to the point where we just laid up in Sibiu for a 2-1/2 days to recover. The town was the seat of the Hapsburg rule of Transylvania in the 1400's and is just oozing with history. The Romanian government recently set about making this place a tourist zone and it shows with its spruced up cobblestone, buildings and infrastructure. We took an excellent Pension style lodging conveniently located beside the market and town square appropriately called the Happy Day Hotel.
Sibiu Town Square
 For about a 120 km. circle around Sibiu are a treasure trove of fortified churches. These are also called castles by some but are really walled churches with some residences within the fort. Many of these towns are only accessible by personal vehicle or bike on gravel one lane roads and have none of the conveniences like restaurants or anybody speaking English for that matter. It is like entering a time machine going to some of these villages but the locals are quite happy to see outsiders.

Totally abandoned, notice the clock missing

The Romanian government together with a German heritage fund is working at restoring some of these fortresses and has installed some excellent museums in a few choice locations. Others have totally fallen to ruin since the last of the Germans left under the communist rule. These are all Lutheran churches and that is one reason they are not in use -- Eastern orthodox and Catholic are the predominate religion here.

The Coles notes version of how these churches became fortified has to do with Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire during the 1200's. At this time Transylvania was under the rule of the Magyars (who became the Hungarians). The Mongols had taken control of vast areas, most of Asia from the China Sea to almost Transylvania and were the most feared army on Earth. They had advanced military tactics that used surprise attacks and fake retreats. Transylvania is a main route from Asia to western Europe and they slaughtered 10,000 Magyar troops in one battle with only 100 survivors and very few Mongol troop losses.

This was the point where fortification started. The first of the Saxon craftsmen were brought in to construct churches and walls. The mongols continued their horse mounted pillaging and rampages until Transylvania became depopulated due to the slaughter and the plague. Replacement inhabitants migrated in from Germany and Romania during the 1400's and the system of fortification was improved to protect against various raiders, mostly the Turks who also used the territory as a pathway into Europe.
church ceiling
 The defense system consisted of a village with courtyards facing inwards and windowless brick walls facing the fields behind. These fields were surrounded by a perimeter of dense shrubbery and thorns to slow raiders down. The fortified church acted as a last shelter in case of all out assault. The gates were heavily hinged and equipped with locks, a technical marvel in the 1400's. The walls were fitted with slots for crossbow firing and pouring of boiled animal fat and tar to stop any repelling of the walls.

Many of these fortifications were completed in the early 1500's and the clock at that time was a symbol of economic power. Almost every one of the fortifications has one. The power of the clock was to be able to accurately control the worker's output. Clocks were treated as currency during this time just like gold. The Hapsburg leaders gave clocks to the Turkish leaders during the 1500's to try to maintain peace.

Our next stop was the town of Sighisoara an easy drive of about 100 kms. plus a few more church fortress diversions along the way. Here is the place where Prince Vlad III was born.
Hotel Room View Sighisoara
  Bram Stoker, the Irish author of the 1890's novel Dracula, created a whole myth and subculture around Vlad even though Bram never set foot in Transylvania.
Vlad the Adult Film Star?
Vlad's father know as Vlad II Dracul ruled Wallachia in the south until the Magyars ousted him to exile in Sighisoura in the mid 1400's. Dracul Senior then cut a deal with the Ottoman Sultan for his return to power but a security deposit of his two sons into the Turk's custody was required to ensure that all tax revenue was submitted back to Istanbul.
The brother took well to his custody and converted to Islam. Our prince was an 11 year old rebel and had some nasty deeds done to him by his captives, warping him for life and giving him an obsessive hatred of Turks. He was installed mostly around 1456-1462 as leader by the Hungarians after his father's death mainly due to his strong anti Ottoman sentiment. Most of the rulers from that era were cruel (there was no Amnesty International) but his extraordinary means of dealing with captured Turks, criminals or anybody else he didn't like was to impale them on a stick through the anus and out through the shoulders. This ensured a 2-3 day slow death and he would dine while watching his victims writhe in pain. It is estimated he decapitated or impaled 80,000 before he was killed by the Turks and his head carried back to Istanbul. Vlad II Dracul's body is buried on an island in a Bucharest park. He became an instant legend in certain parts of the world from the time of his death.
Bram Stocker chose a picture of a castle in Bran, Transylvania for a description of Dracula's castle. The book Dracula has never gone out of print.
Bran Castle Terrace View
Bran just happens to be the place where I write this post from. This is the closest thing that Romania has to Niagara Falls with all its tacky glory.
Being a Falls fan, I kind of like this place too. For $33/night double we are staying in a resort style lodge with 3 pools, waterfalls, pony rides (stupid pony-my feet drag riding it), statues of Vlad and all the other kings, 6 foot high giant chess sets, fellini-esque mascots, rock climbing, zip lining, a bonfire, petting zoo with deer, restaurants with hand tenderized deer entries, a disco, tennis, bowling, nature paths-- you get the idea.
Bran Village Resort

Oh, the title of this post is what all vampires tell their children.

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