Sorting Transylvanian Fact and Fantasy

August 30, 2010

By Major Steven Lamb, U.S. Africa Command Public Affairs Office

It’s midnight and the full moon cuts streams of pale light through the black trees around me.  The cold breeze makes the hair on my neck stand up; I know I am not alone.  The smell of death invades ever pore of my body and then I feel the lifeless hand grasp my arm.

Alright, no, despite the full moon hanging over the city last week that isn’t at all what my Romania experience was like but if you have watched any movies about the Transylvanian region that is likely the way you would expect them to start.  I was very excited a few weeks ago when I learned that I would be visiting “the old country”   especially in light of Hollywood’s current obsession with vampires.  The US Army Europe’s annual Public Affairs conference held this year in Sibiu, Romania was a great opportunity and I intended on getting as much out of it as I could.

The conference, a gathering of public affairs professionals from across Europe, was focused on many issues including working with U.S. Embassies, the best uses of Social Media, branding our organizations and taking a quick look at what future technologies may help  us share our stories with broader audiences.  U.S. Africa Command is headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, and though our focus isn’t on Europe we were invited to share in the interaction among our professional peers.  This conference created a great forum for idea sharing and learning among movers in our profession.

I also enjoyed the chance to visit another European country and really learn something about a place I have always been fascinated with….. Transylvania!

I started with some research on the internet and I looked up an old friend who moved from Romania to the United States, joined the Army as an Enlisted Soldier and just recently graduated Officer Candidate School.   This young Army 2nd Lieutenant is really an example of someone living the American Dream.

Her email was straight to the point, “Sibiu – beautiful!!! ,” and then she recommended I eat bear!  I am an unashamed carnivore and I am actually OK with that, but she went on  to recommend other dishes including “Creier Pane (brain) and Maduvioare (marrow).”  Carnivore or not, I am not starving to death so if I am going to try brain, let me just try it before you tell me what it is!  There were many other encouragements but too numerous to mention here.

The region of Transylvania has been a hotbed of battle, conspiracy, murder and intrigue stretching back to the 1st century B.C.  Family members assassinating one another in grabs for power, violent wars and above all the more recent rumors, mythology and ugly truths of one of history’s more bloodthirsty tyrants.  Needless to say, I was very excited.

The old Roman city of Sibiu is in the foothills of the Southern Carpathian mountains about 100 miles west of  Vlad Dracula (Son of the Dragon) III’s castle.   Bram Castle was the setting for Bram Stoker’s (no familial relation) horror novel about Dracula, that legendary figure who continues to stoke the furnaces of Hollywood’s imagination.  The reality of Vlad Dracula III, or Vlad Tepes (the Impaler) is much more frightening than Stoker’s tale.  More like a Quentin Tarantino film than the un-dead creature Stoker wrote of the real Vlad was a true monster.  Separating fact from fantasy was a bit difficult but I did learn that Vlad was a resident of Sibiu for a short time but soon left.   According to history there were political challenges at the time and Vlad, who did not like Saxon Germans, returned to the city four years after his departure with a more sinister purpose.  He brought with him his 20,000 man army in one of his many military campaigns against the Saxons; he reportedly killed around 10,000 of his former friends and neighbors in the city, many by impaling. 

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Despite very ugly chapters in their history and the potentially incredible draw of commercialism, and it’s associated degradation of traditional cultures, created in the fervor of by shows like Twilight and True blood, I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only were the people of Sibiu not looking to suck my blood, they weren’t interested in sucking my wallet dry either.  Quite the contrary, not only was everything much more reasonable cost-wise than what we have here in Germany I only saw only one reference to the historical figure of Dracula, an arcade called “Dracula’s Games.”

My friend was right. Sibiu’s medieval old city, which dates back to the late 1100s, is beautiful and, in fact, it is nothing short of spectacular.  With narrow cobble stoned streets and alleys linking secluded plazas and piatas visitors are treated with ornate stone aches and the ever present feeling of age in this former capital of Transylvania.  A visitor gets the distinct impression they have slipped through the time machine of Michael Crichton’s Timeline and are now living real history.

Piata Mare is the largest of Transylvania’s city squares and serves as the central point of the ancient city.  This square has been used as a vast market, a place to lock up unruly drunks and even as a gallery for public hangings and beheadings.  While in Sibiu we were privileged to enjoy both a concert and a medieval fest in the piata which drew residents from towns and villages all around the city.   With more outdoor restaurants than you can count there was always a good meal to be had at incredibly reasonable prices.

I stopped off at a street vendor to look at some souvenirs.  A young girl of perhaps 16 or 17 years began to speak to me in Romanian; I had to tell her I couldn’t understand.  “Ok,” she replied as she began counting off with her fingers, “English, Deutsche (German), Italian or French?”   I speak American, not even proper English, and here this young lady could converse in five languages!  She indicated she was more comfortable with German than English so between her fluency and my broken German I was able to purchase a few items for the family. 

Moving on down the plaza I stopped for dinner.  The restaurant was predominately Italian with a few other international dishes.   My lesson with the street vendor learned, I placed my order…… “Ich mouchte einen Salate und eine Flache Wasser stilless, Bitta” I was confident in my German, I said “ I would like a salad and a bottle of flat (non-carbonated)water, please.”  Apparently I said something much different to the ears of my waitress who stared at me as though I had grown a third eye.  “What?” she asked.  “Oh, you speak English?” “Yes,” with a chuckle….. so much for my attempt at being international.

One of the other highlights of the conference was a cultural tour of the Romanian countryside.  We first visited the Saxon village of Cisnadioara where we climbed the very steep St. Michaels Mountain in order to visit St. Michael’s Biserica fortificata or fortified basilica.  The basilica, built in the late 1100s, appeared to be more of a church than a fort.  It once had very large walls around it to offer protection from invading armies but these walls are half their former stature as the building materials have been taken for other projects as security in the area improved over time and such fortifications were no longer necessary.  According to our guide, Anna Ziegler, the armies who bothered to come to this area were normally pretty small and would only lay siege to the fort for a short time before they became “bored” and moved on to other locals.  Even the Nazis had their time in this building during their occupation.  Despite the strong resemblance to a church there is no evidence it was ever used as such, presumably due to the steep climb the villagers would have to endure to get to services. 

We then moved on to the Roman village of Sibiel where we were treated to a cold lunch of traditional Romanian fare.  Two staples of the area are tomato and cucumber which are both offered at nearly every meal.  In addition there was an incredible eggplant spread called Vinete for fresh bread, meat balls, cheese and some chewy smoked meat which turned out to be what we might call “fatback” in the states.   You can learn a lot about a people by their food but, as I mentioned earlier, I have found it is better to try it first and then ask what you just ate, otherwise you may not chance it (remember the brain?).  On this account, I was glad I didn’t know before I ate; the flavor was incredible but if I knew up front what it was I was about to eat I likely would have stopped cold.  We enjoyed some homemade wine that was very sweet and the Romanian liquor Tuica that was something like vodka but a bit different.  The entire meal, beverages included, was all made in the village with locally grown and produced ingredients.  What a delicious treat.

Sibiel has a beautiful and ancient Orthodox church whose walls and ceiling domes are filled with traditional religious paintings; the smell of old wood, leather and incense pulls visitors right back to ancient times.  Outside visitors will find an Orthodox cemetery and the Muzeul Zosim Oancea, a museum which hosts a large collection of Romanian peasant art.  Here you will find painted glass, not stained but painted with paints created using local plant dies.  These “icons” as they are referred to represent everything from Christ’s crucifixion and the Last Supper to other scenes from the life of Jesus.  The icons change in color based upon what the artist used to make their paints but the overall style does not change.  There are also ancient copies of the Bible dating back to the mid 1500s.

I guess you can say I got more than I bargained for in this trip.  Romania is a picturesque and very inexpensive country steeped in history and tradition.  There is so much to learn of these kind people that I am already planning a return trip with my family.  When we came to Germany my wife asked what I absolutely had to see before we go back to the states, Bram’s castle is in that short list so maybe with this introduction to this beautiful country I will be able to make that desire a reality.


One Response to “Sorting Transylvanian Fact and Fantasy”

  1. clau2002 Says:

    Nice post,though it needs some small corections.The castle is called BRAN castle not BRAM castle and it has nothing in common with Vlad the impaler.In fact it is the property of the Hapsburg family,the austrian imperial family.Vlad”s real fortress is in POENARI not very far and is in ruin, even so it is a touristical atraction.Vlad did not hate saxons,in fact he fought them becouse they wouldnt recognise his authority and disobey his comercial laws.Reports of this conflict made by these saxon merchants in the west are the base for his alleged cruelty.At the same time the Pope in Rome would declare hime as a hero knight defender of christianity.What is called”tuica” spelled “tzuica”is actually what you would call “plum brandy”and is not related to VODKA wich is distilled of grain.

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