The Szekler Heart of Transylvania

In the Heart of Transylvania is Harghita County, home of the Szekelyfold. The Szekelers are a group of Magyar/Hungarian origins who formed a battalion of frontier guards that defended the land against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle Ages.

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They were mostly left alone until the area became Romanian territory after the 1920 Treaty of Trianon was signed into effect. Suddenly the Szeklers were targeted by the Romanian government in attempt to assimilate them.

In the 1950s, legislation formed to provide autonomy to Hungarians in Romania, and in 1968 the area was divided into three fully autonomous counties for those identifying as Hungarian and/or Szekeler.

With respect to the people I met here, I often refer to the Hungarian names of places as I learned them. Be aware that this is not always received well in other parts of Romania.

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Arrival in Cluj Napoca

I was invited to Romania by a dear friend and professor J who is the director/professor of ongoing archaeological projects in the city of Szekelyudvarhely, called “Udvar” for short. In Romanian, Udvar (“courtyard”) is known as Odorheiu Secuiesc, and that is consequently how you will find it on the map.

My music pick for this entry is one of my favourite classics, “Hungarian Waltz No. 5” by Johannes Brahms. Enjoy this rendition used in a Charlie Chaplin sketch.

 

The Commute
My first three hours in this country were spent watching it all blur past as a massive storm rolled in. I had been back in Germany for a couple weeks before boarding a plane out of Munich to the northern city of Cluj Napoca in Cluj County.

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The Cluj airport was tiny, stuffy, frustrating, and had no operating currency exchange. When the passengers on my flight were led to exit the plane through the emergency door and were left standing in the tarmac for nearly twenty minutes after it rolled away, the employees offered no explanation. My suitcase was embarrassingly overstuffed and heavy. I needed a nap, a beer, a cold shower, the list goes on.

Then I was collected by Alex, a professional photographer and videographer that creates stunning documentaries and memoir videos for special occasions. He also works as a private chauffeur because he is saving to purchase a new high-end video camera.

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I appreciated Alex’s sense of humour, attention to detail, and pointing out the authentic lesser known places of interest while sharing the history of the area.

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At first there were plenty of road signs and paved interstates but then signs appeared less frequently, the road turned to gravel or dirt, and there was no indication of any other humans as far as I could see.

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Like most residents in Udvar and Transylvania, Alex is Hungarian and not Romanian. He was an excellent companion during both of our three-hour trips to and from the airport, with the assistance of Google Translate. We became fast friends.

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One of our stops was in the spa resort city of Sovata at a heliothermal spring called Medve To (Bear Lake), or Lacul Ursu in Romanian.

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Medve To is the result of a collapsed salt mine in the 1870s and its healing powers were discovered a few decades later. The cliffs surrounding Medve To are made of solid salt, and unlike the other four saltwater lakes in the region, this lake has plenty of lush vegetation.

Visitors are not allowed in the lake from around noon until 2 or 3 pm because the water gets too hot for safety.

I swiped the image below credited to 123rf.com so you can see how cool it really is:

SOVATA, URSU LAKE, ROMANIA - AUGUST 8, 2015: People relaxing at the beach in Sovata, Transylvania, Romania. Stock Photo - 55990609

Shared from 123rf.com, not my photo

Sovata is part of the Szeklyfold in Mures County, first recorded in the 1500s.

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You can buy epsom salt, artisan goods, and try any number of restaurants in the surrounding village park. There is a really awesome wooden orthodox church as well.

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Heavy sheets of rain fell and black clouds covered the sky as we moved blindly on winding dirt roads. Grass on either side was so high it loomed above the windshield.

It was a hot rain. Thunder jolted me out of my seat every few seconds and the last hour of the drive was unnerving, even though I was in good hands.

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Finally we made it to Udvar safe and sound.

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I took this photo from inside the car during the storm. It was only about 4 pm.

 

Hotel Küküllo
Küküllo is in the center of Udvar and the staff was so kind and helpful. They provided a walking map, suggested itinerary, and regaled me with promises of delicious breakfasts to come.

The sun rises in Udvar between four and five a.m. I woke up to the sound of muted church bells that gradually grew louder, and the smell of sizzling meat as the room brightened.

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From my window I had an excellent view of the Franciscan Church and the town squares below.

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Franciscan Church

There was an ancient air conditioning machine in my room that ran on Romanian leu coins. One leu equals roughly a quarter USD, but the catch is- you can only run it for fifteen minutes at a time before it stops. Then you have to drop another leu, make your selection, and wait for it to start up again. It is also about twenty feet from the bed.

Heat, humidity, storms, cellars, taverns, and lack of any real air conditioning made it seem as though I was being misted the whole time in Udvar.  Fresh clean clothes felt damp right out of the suitcase. I would take a cold shower, dry off, get dressed, and be gummy again before I even left the bathroom.

As you can imagine, this coin-operated air conditioning situation was a hilarious comedy of errors; first trying to get the room to cool down enough to be able to sleep, and then to actually fall asleep quickly before it got too warm/quiet and I had to get up again.

I am one of those people who usually sleeps with an industrial fan blowing full speed on me all night, after all.

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Beer is considered food in Romania, excusing it from tariffs and regulations found elsewhere in the world. After settling in, I had my first Ciuk on the patio and people watched until my friend J returned from a class.

Breakfast Promises at Küküllo are no joke! The wonderful Atilla prepared this smorgasbord of eggy toast, crumbled cheese, creamed spinach, THREE types of pork with mustard, and a Damn Fine Cup of Coffee. When I had to check out before breakfast time on my departing day, he got an early start and sent me off with a carryout box.

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With an impressive breakfast underway, I set out early to explore the main town squares. Udvar’s population is, according to a local parishioner, around 96% Hungarian. The remaining 4% of the people here are Roma and Romanian.

Hungarians and Szeklers are proud of their heritage and the entire town is filled with parks, gardens, sculptures, and monuments celebrating notable Szekler Hungarians.

Memorial Park
Across the street from Hotel Küküllo is this Memorial Park that stands in tribute to thirteen famous Hungarians. To the right and going forward, the area is filled with places to shop, eat, and meet others.

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The thirteenth bust is of the Wandering Szekler.

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Names and info of all thirteen honorees.

 

Székelyudvarhelyi Szent Miklós Római Katolikus Templom és Plébánia
Everyone urged me to visit this church on the hill and the cemetery behind it, just a few blocks from the park. It was a bit difficult to find information in English, but my Babel brain tells me this is Udvar’s Saint Miklos Roman Catholic Temple of Plebania. Plebian, meaning the common people of Rome. 

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Once you climb to the top, there is a spectacular view of the city.
Hello, Carpathian Mountains.

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Plebian Cemetery
The cemetery held a fascinating collection of Hungarian, Romanian, and German family names displayed on elaborately carved headstones, gates, and wooden plaques.

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I hiked around as long as I could stand it in the steamy summer heat, then I went looking for a fancy drink.

Cofetaria Alexandr
Cofe Alexandr is known for its rich pastries, coffee, teas, and creamy gelato. It is a particularly popular spot during the summer because it blasts several large oscillating fans, making it quite literally the coolest place in town.

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Across from Alexandr is the Town Hall square, and both sides of this street are lined with gardens and monuments that lead to Saint Miklos.

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Town Hall

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Millenium Monument in Town Hall Square

If you care to read more about modern Udvar history and current affairs, this website is a great resource.

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Udvar has ornate churches and murals everywhere you look, filling in the spaces between its parks and monuments. Sadly, the Haaz Reszo Museum was in the process of relocating while I was there but there is a theater and a philharmony.

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1 Decembrie 1918 is a major street in Udvarhely, installed to celebrate the Romanian National Holiday, Great Union Day. Also known as Unification Day, it marks the union of Transylvania.

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I took a wrong turn somehow and had been wandering through a residential area with a bunch of chicken coops. Just as I found my way back to a main intersection, J and another student spotted me and led me to the school.

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Archaeology at the Babes Bolyai University
As I mentioned, my good friend is the director of Archaeotek ongoing fieldwork courses  and teaches, along with some other friends, at the Babes Bolyai. You can learn more about the incredible work they have done here over the years with various projects and courses on the Archaeotek site.

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I dropped in a couple lectures, met the students, and felt a bit nostalgic for the years I spent working toward my Anthropology degree. Back then I ached for an opportunity like this, but I made it here all the same.

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For ethical reasons I will only share this one photo from the Osteology lab, as it is mandatory to practice caution not to capture any identifiable human information. That being said, this exhibit of vertebrae and a sacrum resembles a smiling face. Do you see it?

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We also came across this sculpture one evening that reminded me of a sacrum. Some people see Jesus in their wallpaper, I always see bones.

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Evenings in Udvar
On my first night, J organized a dinner for me to meet our friend K and the rest of his team at Plebanos Cellar Tavern & Restaurant. Between us all, we ordered most of the menu and I had the pleasure of trying the Tarkonyos csirke raguleves (tarragon chicken stew), Töltött kaposzta (stuffed cabbage rolls), fried chicken stuffed with mushrooms, fried cheese, and other dishes.

These are some of the recipes I studied up on and made  once I was back in America for the Austro-Hungarian Mmmpire and The Reformation dinner parties.

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We went to another place (name forgotten) the following night for a fantastic meal where I had Hungarian Stroganov with fried mushrooms and salad. Earlier that day I was informed my plan to return home with a suitcase of local paprika would be foiled by Customs, so I was determined to eat as much of it as possible.

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After dinner we all went to Mokka, and I was introduced to the magic of Unicum and Palinka. Mokka is the ideal place to meet for drinks, with countless tables on a large romantic multi-level patio garden and two bars.

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Unicum is an aperitif bitter that boasts over 40 different herbs, and Palinka is a fruit brandy made of plums, apricots, apples, pears, and/or cherries. Both are Hungarian-made, National drinks, and not to be toyed with.

Members of an internationally-touring singing group were there hanging out also, and they entertained us (and themselves) with their renditions of Rent and other Broadway hits. It was surreal.

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Leaving Udvar was a bit heart-wrenching, but I was excited about our next stop, medieval Sighisoara.

 

Bonus! For your viewing pleasure, here are two of my poorly filmed and motion sickness-inducing video clips:

 

 

 

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