Mountains, Castles & A Lung Infection
Headfirst into the Heart of Transylvania
In the morning I woke up to the sounds of dogs barking. Anna’s parents have two absolute goobers for black labs. Those two dogs have the energy of eight. Their house is on the outskirts of town where a lot of new houses are going up. The forest and the mountains abut the houses less than a kilometer away, making the dogs prone to barking at anything they hear that comes from the forest at night. I woke up early in the cold bristling morning. Fog hung over the mountains and leaked into the Maros Valley below. Anna’s mom was awake already and in the kitchen. She seemed surprised that I was already awake and immediately made coffee. I wrapped myself in a knit blanket and went to the terrace at the back of the house to aimlessly think into the sky, especially about family back home. Her mom joined me for coffee on the terrace. She can understand English very well but cannot speak it. I would speak to her in English and she would speak back in Hungarian. I can understand quite basic Hungarian although I still struggled quite a bit. As morning dragged the sun over the mountains more people started to arise. After a long morning of coffee, tea, tomato slices and cigarettes on the terrace, Péter arrived with his car, ready to go to Sighișoara, only after lunch.
At around 3pm we set off for Sighișoara, about 55km away. The road there was a two lane paved highway, similar to a state highway in the US. The road snaked through round green mountains and small farming villages. We passed large semi-trucks barely making it around corners and Gypsyies on horse carriages illegally riding the shoulder. Piles of hay dotted the fields as most crops besides corn were coming to the end of their harvest season. We arrived in Sighișoara about an hour after we had left home. The old town sits atop a stony promontory in the middle of the valley. Newer portions of the town grew around the base of the old town, and eventually sprawled out into the valley below reaching the Tarnava Mare River. As you walk up the steep stone paths arriving at the ramparts of the old city walls you start to realize that this town is not similar at all to many of the other castle towns in Transylvania. Sighișoara, or Schäßburg in German, is a Saxon German town in the dead middle of Romania. In the 12th century the Hungarian Crown invited German craftsman and freemen from Saxony to settle the Eastern frontiers of the Hungarian Kingdom, and essentially form a buffer zone for the kingdom from invaders from the East such as the Rus, Cumans, Mongols and other “invaders on horseback”. Most of the signage is in German first, then Romanian. The city’s architecture is a stunningly intact example of medieval architecture, although historically the city has been invaded, burned and occupied by Transylvanian Germans, Hungarians, Russians, Austrians, and Romanians. Today the town is mostly inhabited by Romanians, with very few German speakers left due to deportations in the Ceaușescu era.
None the less, we explored the small German town high in the Transylvanian mountains. The Bergkirche at the top of the promontory provided stunning vistas of the valley below and distant views of the green hills and cattle below. But this also marked the beginning of our hunt for the great Romanian dessert of papanași. Péter was more than intent, perhaps silently fanatic, in finding a true papanași. For the uninitiated, papanași, is a sort of fried sphere or donut filled with berries and sweet cheese, usually served with a smaller sphere on top and drizzled in fruit and cream. An absolute heart stopper of a dessert. Not to mention, it is a difficult dessert to find, even in Romania. After a thorough sweep of restaurants in the old town, we headed down the hill and finally found a restaurant that served it. We promptly ordered and awaited for the dessert. Péter went off for the bathroom almost as soon as we were delivered the sweet fried balls of cheese and fruit. Three small balls lined the plate with fruit on top. “Péter is going to be so mad.” Anna said as she poked the dessert with the tiny spoon. Whats wrong with it? “This isn’t real papanași. Real papanași is a large ball with other smaller ones, not just smaller ones.” Before Péter could even take his seat the expletives rolled off his tongue in Hungarian. “This is not real papanași!” he exclaimed to me again at the table as we started to demolish the small plate with the delicate dessert.
After a disappointingly delicious dessert, Péter quite simply asked, “Do you guys want to go to another castle?” If it’s nearby, sure why not? Anna’s dad had suggested a castle we could visit that morning at breakfast but I did not make any note of it, as I was already satisfied enough with the fact that Péter was so kind enough to drive us to Sighișoara to begin with. So as the sun started to hang lower in the sky, we rambled our way to the village of Criș.
The village lies deep in a valley off the highway, with no other villages along the track. There, deep in the temperate, lush mountains, Bethlen Castle stands in partial ruin and partial repair. The castle was owned by the Bethlen family for hundreds of years, as they were one of the royal families that held vast swaths of farming land in the region. They occupied the castle until around 1948 when the new communist government in Romania began to seize all royal and princely property from their families and collectivize it into the state. Most of the family fled the region, and the castle ultimately fell into disrepair, as the government did not bother in maintaining the multi-hundred year old building and used it until it was no longer safe too. In the 2000’s the castle was returned to the family, who ultimately signed a 49 year lease with a Catholic charitable organization that is tasked with renovating the castle. The castle was manned by a small team of construction workers and volunteers that maintain the castle on a day to day basis. This is also where I had my first encounter with a Puli, a Hungarian shepherd dog with naturally corded hair. The dog was quite cute, although dirty, and immediately took a liking to me.
We promptly discovered that the castle was in far better condition than we had anticipated, as many castles in Romania are in relative ruin. Whole banquet halls, bathrooms, bedrooms, and ramparts were mostly, if not entirely, restored. Original furniture from the castle had been found in surrounding villages and in the possession of interesting figures who’s methods of obtaining the rare furniture is questionable. Yet, parts of the castle were in stark disrepair. Needless to say, the castle would be condemned before it would be a tourist attraction in the United States. Rooms with mysterious holes that seem to lead to nowhere. Creaky wooden spiral staircases into towers with support trusses for floors. Things are different here to put it bluntly. As the sunlight drifted from the valley we decided to make our way back home.
In the morning I spent time walking around the exploring Targu Mures, or Marosvásárhely in Hungarian, as Anna went to visit her grandmother at her apartment in town. I finally finished off another roll of Portra 400 while discovering sites such as the beautifully ironic socialist-realist McDonalds in the city center. We returned home for a summer bbq, and the last one of the summer for me. Sausages, čevapi, coleslaw, potatoes, clear chicken soup, steamed carrots, chicken and peppers charred on skewers. Nectarines fell from the tree in the backyard of house. A proper bbq if any, without the very American BBQ Sauce of course. After lunch we made the trek back to Cluj-Napoca, as it was Sunday afternoon and the work week beckoned us back to our apartment spaces. But this Monday morning would be no pleasant start to the week.
I woke up, congested, hoarse and sick. “Jesus Christ if I’m a breakthrough case of COVID I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself.” I thought to myself. I thought it was probably nothing, just a lot of traveling and exhaustion. Just take it slow. Go into town and find a proper breakfast. Well my god I’m lucky I even made it to the restaurant. My head felt clouded as I sat in the courtyard of the restaurant. I typed out an entire article on my computer and my brain proceeded to fog over me. “What the fuck is happening to me?” I thought as I looked clean through my computer screen to the table behind me. I felt no fever, no chills, I could still taste my food. My poor mother. My god I can’t tell her that I’m sick cause she’ll be besides herself in fear of my well being like all mothers are or should be. I got back to the apartment. “I just need to sleep this off".” I thought to myself. I had a bit to drink the night before so maybe I’m a bit hungover? Anything seemed to be an option. Oh yeah its Monday, the 13th, happy birthday Alex. Cool, sick as a dog on my birthday. “If I want to do anything later today I need to rest and figure this out” I thought to myself as my voice was strained. Ok, you’re going to have to call mom at some point, like my god she’s a medical professional, a free doctor for Christ sake! I rested for most of the afternoon, in the hopes of returning my body to normal. By 4pm I was starting to feel more normal, albeit still a bit like hell. Anna proposed we meet at a park with a small lake near her old apartment to celebrate my birthday. I took the bus to the park and walked some laps around the lake. With each lap I started to feel better, like I needed to work the illness clean out of the body. Purge it with action! Actions followed with cake and balloons, wine at home, and a late afternoon flight the next day.
I called mom the next afternoon. “Alex, it sounds like you have some sort of pulmonary infection, along with seasonal allergies.” So a lung infection in layman’s terms? “Yeah, I guess so. Just take it easy, don’t overwork yourself.” I hear these words as I have 2 hours of flights and a 3 hour layover ahead of me. I most definitely think my infection was caused by multiple factors. Traveling for hours on end to different places, the cigarette smoke in the air, and just a generally weakened immune system from thousands of kilometers of traveling over the course of the past two weeks. But hey, theres quite nothing like a lung infection to finish out my travels in Transylvania.