This monastery is to Sinaia what Jan was to the Brady family: perfectly lovely, but not as glamorous as big sister Peles Castle or as cute as the little houses in the Transylvanian countryside. It’s a bit of a shame because the Sinaia Monastery is worthy of more attention–or at least worthy of a Church on Sunday.
The monastery contains two churches. The old church, Biserica Veche, was built in 1695. The “new” church, Biserica Mare, was built in 1846. The monastery was intended to hold 12 monks, like the disciples. Or doughnuts. (Coincidence?!?) However, more monks were admitted over the years. Thirteen monks reside there today.
We first stopped by the new church. The interior was colorful with gold adornment and lots of art, including an embroidered icon called a epitaphios. I’d love to show you photos but they were forbidden and a baba was giving me the side eye the entire time. I don’t know who alerted her to my Church-on-Sunday ways, but I was sufficiently rattled enough to stash my “church camera” (a small point-and-shoot with a silent shutter).
We walked over to the old church and were rewarded with fewer visitors, a recent renovation, and no evil-eyed babas. Jackpot.
The old church features exterior frescoes. I’ve noticed this on other Romanian churches but it seems to be pretty rare in other Orthodox cultures. (As always, readers, correct me if needed.)
According to Wikipedia, the old church was renovated in 2006, and the interior frescoes were retouched in 1795. It looks as though there was some retouching during the 2006 renovation though, because these colors seemed awfully vibrant.
The monastery also featured something I saw throughout Romanian churches: an outdoor votive candle cabinet. I’m guessing this cuts down on church fires, but there’s probably a more religious explanation as well. The words on the different cabinets signify where you light candles for the living or for the dead. I guess zombies are just out of luck.
When we read about fortified churches in Romania, I knew some were destined to be a “Church on Sunday.” So on our last day in Transylvania we decided to visit two of the uniquely military churches.
The first city we visited, Biertan, was a Transylvania Saxon stronghold founded in the 13th century. Saxons were essentially Germans who settled in/colonized the area and tried to defend it from Ottoman invasion. To protect the land and its people, larger towns built defensive walls around their cities and smaller villages built fortified churches to help people withstand military sieges.
The drive from Sigisoara to Biertan revealed small villages and dirt roads. I was still fresh off the path of Dracula and intrigued by the crosses designed into most houses. Pure aesthetic, or defense against the dark arts? You decide.
We rolled into the village of Biertan, which is bustling enough to have a large pension and an information kiosk. Yet everything was quiet–too quiet.
We met an English speaker who informed us that we were there on one of the few days that the church was closed. CLOSED. Apparently it was a holy day-but what kind of church is closed on a holy day? We walked around the walls and tried the front door in vain, but we were denied entry. I thought about trying to scale the wall for a photo, but 500 years after the church was built, I still couldn’t get in. I got a photo of the wall, but it wasn’t exactly what we drove there for.
We decided that we would try our luck at another fortified church in the town of Viscri, a village of about 400 people. The drive was beautiful-lots of rolling green hills and sheep herders. We got the “you ain’t from around here, ain’t you vibe,” but people seemed more curious than anything else. Except for this lady. Talk about the evil eye. No wonder people have crosses on their homes.
We found Viscri’s church pretty easily and parked across from a Dacia (the Yugo of Romania) guarded by turkeys. If there was ever a symbol of rural Romania, this is probably it.
We then walked up a narrow stone path to reach the church. I was wondering if we’d be able to get past the front gate when we were rewarded with this welcoming sight.
However, when we reached the church’s front door, we saw a sign saying that a service was being conducted. It asked visitors to stay outside until the conclusion of the service. FOILED AGAIN. At least we could walk behind the thick walls of the church.
The origins of the church date from 1100 AD, but it wasn’t fortified until 1525, after the previous church was razed by invading Tartars. Despite its historic (read: aging) status, people are encouraged to climb up the wall fortifications and peer out of the lookouts built into the surrounding wall.
We waited for the service to end, but it was clear that the Saxons meant business. There was a lot of hymning and hawing, if you know what I mean. We realized that the fortified churches were, well, barring us from entry. While it didn’t make for a great church on Sunday, hats off to the Saxons, who built churches to withstand the force of Ottoman invaders–and RHOB. Until next time, that is…
For some, the word Transylvania triggers Rocky Horror Picture Show flashbacks.
For RHOB, it means Dracula.
I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula while we were traveling through Romania. Though the story is largely set in England, it ends and begins in Transylvania, “in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe.” As Dracula himself says, “We are in Transylvania, and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things.”
They say truth is stranger than fiction, and I have to agree. Dracula is presumed to be based on Vlad Tepes III. Vlad (we’re on a first-name basis) was born into a high-ranking family. He was the son of a member of the Order of the Dragon, Dracul, and signed documents as Dracula, meaning son of a Dracul.
We decided to track down the legend while we were in Romania. Our first stop was Bran Castle, often called “Dracula’s Castle.” That’s a bit of a stretch, since there is little evidence that he did anything more than stay here temporarily, but we were undeterred. I’m not a fan of castles but I figured this one was too good to pass up.
Bran didn’t do much to dispel my attitude toward castles, but the damp and largely unfurnished structure offered a suitably chilling ambiance. And the screaming children on school trips added an unexpected touch of horror. The castle is a bit “Disneyfied”-they even have a room dedicated to films about Dracula-but it was all in good humor and a worthwhile morning spent driving around Transylvania.
Our next stop was Sighişoara, Vlad’s birthplace and one of the more fun cities to pronounce: Siggy-SWAR-a. After driving Muz insane with my DJ rendition of the name (Siggy-siggy-siggy SWAR-a, accompanied by phantom record scratching) we pulled into the historic part of town.
How could such a cold-hearted person live in such an adorable place? We wandered around the car-free Old Town and stopped by Vlad’s childhood home. The original building is long gone, but it’s been replaced with a…wait for it…Dracula-themed restaurant. Of course.
Sighişoara wouldn’t be complete without a statue of Vlad. Milos led us to the man himself on his afternoon walk. They both tried to look as tough as possible.
Our time in Romania was coming to an end, and we hadn’t seen a single vampire. It was a bit of a disappointment. Sure, Dracula was a work of fiction, but vampire stories existed for decades, even centuries before the book was written. In fact, the word “vampire” originated in Serbia in the 1700s, and Serb Arnold Paole unleashed vampire fever in Europe. So it couldn’t be completely fake, right? RIGHT? Milos and I were bummed. Muz was just hungry. So we called off our vampire search and went to dinner.
The next day (our last in Romania), Milos met a stray dog who was popular in the main square. I’m not sure what was said, but apparently he decided to let us in on a secret. As we drew closer to our new furry friend, he rolled over and showed us his pointy, sharp teeth.
I know what you’re thinking–RHOB, those are canines, not vampire fangs–but I know better. Vlad, Arnold and Nosferatu, your secret is safe with RHOB.
While we were staying in Sinaia, we drove to Brașov for the afternoon. Brasov is a larger tourist town in Transylvania and a popular base for people touring the region. The city is also noted for several things:
1. its tourist-eating bear population (no hikes for us, thanks)
2. a quaint medieval district (see left)
3. beautiful countryside (the setting for the movie Cold Mountain)
4. And this sign:
Here’s the close-up:
This is Milos doing his best Vigo von Homburg Deutschendorf* impression against the Carpathian mountains in Sinaia, Transylvania. Transylvania is rightfully the setting for Dracula. The dark green mountains, numerous castles, caves, and misty weather are the perfect backdrop for the mysterious tale. Not to mention that the stray dogs and crowing roosters in town make for eerie background noise. We found Sinaia to be a quiet but pretty base for Transylvanian adventures…despite the nasty “mosquito bites” we found on our necks….
*Why yes, that is a character from Ghostbusters II. Naturally.
I was pleased (and jealous) to see that Bucharest had a subway system, so I walked to the nearest stop to explore the city. As the train pulled into the station, I saw this:
Now, I know that I should be disappointed that the train was covered in graffiti, but regular readers will know I wasn’t. In fact, I was thrilled. I haven’t seen graffiti like this since I was a kid. And on a subway, no less! It reminded me of my childhood. I practiced those bubble letters for hours, people.
Other trains on the same line (yellow) had similar “artwork.”
The other train lines had newer subway cars without a speck of graffiti. This was nice, but a little boring. I was always eager to catch the next yellow line train to see how the cars were going to be painted. As I waited on the platforms I tried recalling scenes from Breakin‘. Wasn’t Kelly ridiculous? How did Ozone manage to keep that hat on while breakdancing? He was like the black Indiana Jones. Amazing.
Didn’t the graffiti kid die running from the cops and stepping on the third rail? Or was that the movie Beat Street? Maybe this excitement over spray- painted trains is why people say it’s difficult to raise a kid in NYC. But the yellow line made my day. Happy Friday, everyone!
Many people seem to think that Balkan cities have been stagnant since times of war or strife. Nothing could be further from the truth. To travel through Balkan cities is to see and feel transition. Fractured infrastructure leads to new highways. Hapsburg-era apartment buildings crumble next to shiny, high-rise offices. It’s not always pretty, but it is always interesting.
Romania is a perfect example of this transition. The country joined the EU in 2007 but it remains among the poorest countries in Europe. Sooty baroque buildings sit by communist-era monstrosities. Upon exiting the clean and reliable metro station by Buchaest’s “Champs Elysees,” the sidewalk was broken into large, uneven chunks.
Yet Romanian transitions aren’t always black-and-white, as this photo will attest. I spotted this combination of new and old just off the show-stopping beauty of Calea Victoriei. I’m not sure if the builder couldn’t afford to build a contiguous pop-up or if the whole building was designed as a testament to Romania’s past and future. In a town full of transitions, this one stood out more than most. As I said, it’s not always pretty, but it is interesting.