Sunday, 26 May 2013

Last post from Romania

It's been an interesting week, walking in the forests and meadows of Transylvania, and spending the night in Saxon villages where the clip-clop of horses is more common than the screech of tyres. We have seen some excellent preservation, but it's the tip of an iceberg. No Saxons will be left in 50 years, and the gypsies, for all their ability to work with animals, aren't going to maintain the Saxon heritage in its richness. So, we have been in a vanishing world.

The animals are what most evokes it: cows, sheep, goats, ducks, hens, dogs, cats and especially horses. Many wear red cockades - to ward off the evil eye, we are told.

What a chancel ceiling Biertan church has! We arrived in the village yesterday evening, at the end of our five days of walking. Not that we did a lot of walking on our last day: we started by revisiting Floresti in the minibus, for a demonstration of the art of barrel-making. (The barrel-maker was away taking his child to hospital when we arrived there on foot the previous day.) All very interesting, but long drawn out: I found the two small puppies playing around the feet of some members of the audience an enjoyable distraction. On the information we were given a barrel-maker might earn all of €75 a week, which seems little enough on which to run a VW Golf and rent a satellite TV.

When we eventually escaped, Gabriel drove us to the outskirts of Nou Sasesc, where we began walking towards Copsa Mare. Descending into a broad valley, we came across a table and benches under some trees. It was a little early for lunch, but clearly this was the place for it. Why, there was even a row of hooks for our hats and bags. What we hadn't bargained for was that we were trespassing on a vast ladybird convention: they got into everything, including of course the food. And they weren't the red and black ones we are familiar with, quite charming in ones and twos, but black and white and in their millions. Yuk. It was left to Jill to lighten our mood with a story about - rather surprisingly coming from her - knickers.

It started raining as we neared Copsa Mare, John once again lifting our spirits with ice creams from the village shop. The large fortified basilica has an elaborate main altar above which hangs a painting of an unusual subject, Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. And around the altar, there are copper (or bronze?) reliefs, each with a fairly crude representation of a biblical scene - the adoration of the child Jesus by the shepherds; Jesus' baptism in the Jordan; the entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; the angel's announcement of the resurrection; Jesus' ascension etc. Quite a moving series for all its simplicity. The minibus met us, so we were spared a short but steep walk up and over into the narrower valley containing Biertan - and an even more imposing fortified church. Getting out of our minibus, with its darkened windows, I was immediately importuned for money - the first place this had happened so overtly.

We dined below the church, in the Ungerlus "medieval" restaurant, and stayed nearby in the very comfortable Ungerlus Pension. Our room not only had its own bathroom, but a bath! Though it overlooks the main road, there's no traffic, and you can hear the crickets cheeping. For dinner, there was chicken soup with noodles, and then Dorada with spinach: one of our best meals. (Beer to drink, and good conversation at our - the less intellectual - end of the table.) I could however have done without the faux-historic paintings, helmets etc. that surrounded us.

We shared our earlier visit to the church, completed in 1522, with a large crowd of Japanese. You approach it via a long covered staircase. Biertan was for 300 years the seat of the bishop of the Lutheran Church of Transylvania. It's now on the UNESCO World Heritage list, with its stone ribbed vaulting, 28-panel altarpiece and a sacristy door with no fewer than 19 locks. From under the roof, you get a clear view of the steep terracing rising above the village: now overgrown, it was for centuries used for wine growing until Communism put an end to that.

The Eastern Bastion of the fortress around the church was not only for defence, but also a prison for men and women who had announced they wanted to divorce: they were kept there with only bread and water, one plate and one spoon, until they changed their minds. It's said that in 300 years only one divorce was recorded.

This morning, Gabriel drove us South a short distance (7 kms.) up the valley from Biertan to the smaller village of Richis. I had been expecting, having seen the original itinerary, to walk through it, but there was clearly a change of plan. Our friends Lucy and David Abel Smith have a house in Richis, and had told us about Herr Johann Schass, the guardian of the fine church. Though we didn't identify which their house was, his eyes lit up when I mentioned their names. As well as frescoes the church contains a number of Green Men: all had been thoroughly painted over at the Reformation and rediscovered only quite recently. Richis' altarpiece is 18th Century, and so built by Lutherans: it's odd therefore to see statues as you would in a Catholic church. One of them represents John the Baptist, pointing to an image of the crucified Christ (as in Colmar's Isenheim altarpiece). The figure of the Baptist was originally given bare legs: these however were covered up with trousers on behalf of a later generation of more readily scandalised parishioners.

Herr Schass, very aged, and with his voice "turning again toward childish treble", sat on the threshold of the church fondling its very large key. pointing out gleefully the sin holes adjacent to the entrance door: sinners were required to atone by rubbing with their finger until they had made a hole in the stone, he said. There must have been many such in the village, judging by the number of holes. Ionut finding some of his jokes hard to translate, was helped out by two Saxon ladies, visiting from Bucharest.

From Richis it was not a long drive to our final destination, Sighisoara. Nicholas and I have now left the rest of the party staying there, and are on our way by the night train to Budapest. But we had plenty time enough to explore the centre of what is a fine old town, birthplace of Dracula (alias Vlad the Impaler) who is naturally much in evidence in the souvenir shops, of which there are plenty. Climbing the 17th Century clock tower - it houses a museum - gave us (along with a horde of other tourists) a good bird's eye view. We also visited the Church on the Hill, approached by an even longer wooden staircase than Biertan's. A collection of painted altarpieces from other churches has been gathered together inside: the curator gave us an excellent talk about it all, in English. Unusually for Romania, no photography was allowed.

After a spell of calm weather, with only lightish rain since Thursday, the heavens opened as we came down. Kind Ionut was waiting at the foot of the covered staircase with umbrellas to save us getting soaked en route to the restaurant. (Lunch was again fish, but not as good as last night.)

I haven't mentioned - and I should do so - the church at Malancrav, which impressed me when we visited it yesterday morning. Although it was in course of restoration, the 16th Century altarpiece covered in plastic, we were yet able to admire the even earlier frescoes on the North wall of the nave and the chancel walls and ceiling. The temptation in the desert is portrayed graphically, with three devils climbing over Jesus' body, seemingly suspended from a spike - presumably on the Temple roof. It's just one of many memorable scenes (though sadly difficult to photograph).

Nicholas, Mark and I were staying in number 276 Malancrav, a beautifully restored MET guesthouse. Nicholas had two rooms, with three beds to choose from, none of them big enough for him (a tall man): two were in chests of drawers. However, he was right beside the bathroom we all shared: we had to walk outside to get to it - or there was an outside loo at the back if we preferred. (I didn't.)

We were looked after by Michaela and one of her seven children at supper: they live in the adjacent farmhouse. Just before we ate, there was a flurry in the village street, with everybody out clustering around three covered wagons, arrived from elsewhere with goods for sale. These were more like the gypsy vehicles we are used to at home, and the occupants were equally resistant to cameras - unlike the children who mobbed John and me. Meanwhile, the cattle, water buffaloes, goats and horses were stampeding through on their way down from their pastures: a wonderful sight on a sunny evening.

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