It wasn’t the occult that drew me to Transylvania. It was a cookbook.
I’ve never read any of the “Twilight” series, nor a single word of an Anne Rice novel (though a friend did persuade me to see the film version of “Interview With the Vampire” when it was released in 1994). Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is the only vampire I’m familiar with. But as a culinary historian, I’ve been intrigued by Transylvania since 1985 and the release of the unusual cookbook “Paul Kovi’s Transylvanian Cuisine,” by the former owner and director of the Four Seasons in New York.
The book is unusual not only for its combination of history and folklore, poetry and sociology, but also for the cuisine of this melting pot in Central Europe, where Hungarians, Armenians, Saxon Germans, Romanians and Rroma make their home. Kovi had combed through 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century treatises and called on 10 of Transylvania’s best writers to help him evoke the bountiful table of this corner of Eastern Europe, which has always been shrouded in mystery and superstition.
As of late last summer, I’d been living in Bulgaria for three months, and although I’d traveled to many nooks and crannies of the Balkans, from the Black Sea to Macedonia, I hadn’t yet crossed the Danube into the land of Dracula.
But now I had a week to do just that, while my husband attended a conference. A part of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian empire for more than 1,000 years, Transylvania is now a largely isolated portion of north-central Romania. The surrounding regions — Moldavia, Maramures, Wallachia and the Banat — were even more unknown and mystifying to me, but I planned to explore as much of this fabled land of mountains and castles as I could in my rental car.
I started in the historic city of Sibiu, which, like many places in Transylvania, is also called by its German name, Hermannstadt, and its Hungarian one, Nagyszeben. Bordered by the Carpathian Mountains to the south, Sibiu, with its multicultural history, was selected as a European Capital of Culture in 2007. Funds from the European Union poured in, and today the city, with its modern accommodations and restaurants and abundance of UNESCO World Heritage sites, is made for visitors.
Sibiu’s architecturally fascinating old town, situated on two levels, seems self-possessed, as though it were still the capital of Transylvania, as it was for 100 years in the 18th century. For most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Habsburg emperors ruled in Transylvania, constructing, as they did in Vienna, grand public spaces and elaborate buildings meant to show the dynasty’s wealth and power. I’ve seen nothing as impressive as the city’s Piata Mare — the “large plaza” — in Bulgaria.
At the same time, the Saxons, a German-speaking group of northern Europeans who had settled in Transylvania beginning in the 12th century and built hilltop villages with fortified churches, also maintained their presence in Transylvania. Among the baroque Habsburg architecture in Sibiu, medieval Saxon homes sport eye-shaped dormer windows that seemed to follow me everywhere.
There are plenty of shops, museums, churches and cafes to duck into, as well as other squares, each lined with structures from different eras. A narrow passageway beneath the arcade of the Council Tower, originally built as part of the city’s second ring of forts in the 13th century, leads to Piata Mica, the handsome “small plaza.” There, the so-called Liars Bridge abuts the elegant, arcaded Hall of the Butchers’ Guild, which houses an ethnographic museum and a superb gift shop selling traditional handmade masks, carvings, fabrics and tableware. The cast-iron bridge, the first in Romania, was built in 1859 to replace a rickety wooden one that was said to collapse if you told a lie while standing on it; the name stuck.
From the bridge, I was drawn down to the Lower Town, wandering through the medieval streets, where everything isn’t quite as spruced up, past at least a dozen stores called Second Hand. I spent a couple of hours in the covered open-air market at Piata Cibin on the river of that name, using Italian to communicate with the delightful Magyar, Rroma and Romanian vendors. As in Bulgaria, I saw plenty of turnips and beets, but spinach was the only leafy green vegetable other than lettuce. One Rroma vendor, his hands black from shelling walnuts, wanted to sell me not only nuts but also parsley root, bright orange catina berries (sea buckthorn) and Cornelian cherries (the fruit of a dogwood tree). Unfortunately, I had no idea how to use them.
Now that Romania is part of the European Union, the butchers and cheesemakers have been moved indoors to a sterile building outfitted with refrigerated cases filled with their wares. However, large hunks of each type of cheese, used for samples, sat atop those coolers. A young woman from the neighboring Saxon village of Rasinari, who spoke English, sold me some of her parents’ lovely fresh sheep’s milk cheese (her father was the shepherd, her mother the cheesemaker).
The 18 sheep-raising villages surrounding Sibiu — known as the Marginimea Sibiului — are remarkable for their preservation of the traditional crafts of weaving, woodcarving, icon painting, egg coloring and, naturally, cheesemaking. I drove to nearby Rasinari first, where gaily painted roadside shrines adorn country roads and the town square. Transylvanian kilims hung in the windows of the gingerbread-trimmed houses painted in pastel colors, like those of Bermuda or Charleston. Public wells provide water to the residents, who cart buckets back to their satellite-dish-embellished houses.
In nearby Cristian, settled by Saxons in the 14th century, I counted 30 empty storks’ nests. Potatoes were being harvested in the surrounding fields, the hay was already stacked, and donkey carts were as common as automobiles. But the ethnographic museum was closed.
On more than one occasion as I drove around this area, I turned around because the road turned to dirt and I didn’t feel comfortable, not speaking the language and without a cellphone. I probably should have joined some of the other conference-attendee spouses, who had hired a driver ($150 for the day) to take them on tours of the area.
This thought struck me particularly on the treacherous, awe-inspiring Transfagarasan Highway, which, at nearly 7,000 feet, is the second highest roadway in Europe, a two-lane blacktop that hugs mile-high canyons and took five years to build. Many consider it to be the best motorcycle route in the world; dozens passed me.
Somehow overcoming my fear of heights, and white-knuckled all the way, I managed to reach the summit, passing Caspar David Friedrich landscapes at every bend. I was fortunate to have bright sun on the climb, but as soon as I reached the peak, chilling clouds moved in. A cluster of restaurants and roadside stands perched on the pinnacle. I walked into one of the restaurants and ordered restorative ciorba ardeleneasca, a traditional Transylvanian “sour” soup chock full of pork and potatoes. Chorbas are made sour by the addition of buttermilk, sour cream, lemon juice, vinegar or, as in this case, sauerkraut juice. My first of the legendary Transylvanian soups, it was delicious.
The hilltop Saxon villages are famous for their fortified churches, several of which have been restored, but I didn’t venture into any. The forts allowed the villages to protect themselves, and their cultures, from centuries of invading Tatars.
In Cisnadioara, I climbed to the top of the hill overlooking the apple orchards and ordered the homemade lard spread and the apple soup from the German menu at the pension at the foot of the citadel, as the church-fort is called. I could have been in Bavaria or in Adams County, Pa.
En route one day to Sighisoara, a castle-topped 12th-century citadel infamously associated with the legend of Dracula, I sped through the Tarnave River Valley on the well-maintained, walnut-tree-lined Route 14. Outside the village of Brateiu, an odd collection of unfinished Rroma homes flanked the road, with striking displays of copper cauldrons, stills and trays for sale. I spent several hours with the Nicolae Caldarar family, who, when it became obvious that I was not going to buy anything, invited me into their home for coffee.
These non-traveling Rroma have been living in the same area for more than 300 years, they told me in Italian, and are often mistakenly referred to as “Gabor gypsies” because they wear similar clothing. But their name — Caldarar — means coppersmith, while Gabori are tinsmiths. I asked why they didn’t take their stunning copperware — all pounded by hand, with hammers on anvils — to cities where they might be better exposed to potential customers. They told me that indeed, they go to Budapest twice a year.
“You mean Bucharest,” I said.
“No, Budapest,” they insisted. “We consider ourselves Hungarian.”
The Old Town of Sighisoara rises up over the city’s newer sections, which hug the Tarnave, in an astonishing display of Saxon architectural styles clinging to the rocky massif. I was mesmerized. Perhaps there is something to this Dracula tale, I thought, as I climbed narrow stairs banked here and there with covered walkways — protection, I would learn, from heavy snowfalls.
The city looks like the set of a horror film, with its fine restored homes and churches, castles and torture chambers. Nine of the citadel’s original 14 towers, built by the craftsmen guilds that maintained them, still stand. The stunning rustic baroque Clock Tower has moving wooden figures that emerge at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. On the citadel side, Peace, Justice and Law appear with angels representing day and night; on the Lower Town side, seven pagan gods representing the days of the week are cranked out automatically, keeping time the way a clock has in this tower for more than 500 years. The tower houses an interesting museum that’s overshadowed by the marvelous views from an upper wraparound balcony.
Back down on the square, once the site of beheadings, the home of Vlad, whose son Vlad the Impaler was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” is marked by a plaque. The plaza is lined with terrace cafes and shops hawking tacky vampire souvenirs. A film crew was working with some vintage cars, and I could see why the tour buses line up in the summer.
I’d unwittingly saved the best for last. We tacked on an extra night to our stay and spent the entire last day at the appealing Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization, known as ASTRA. Just outside Sibiu on the edge of the Dumbrava Forest, it’s a 250-acre open-air museum that makes Colonial Williamsburg look like a tiny theme park. Begun in the early 1960s, it’s a re-creation of Romanian rural life that features 150 historical structures that have been moved to the museum grounds and restored.
It offers a peek into the world of hunters, fishermen, shepherds, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, weavers and potters. There are two churches, both still in use, and a field of windmills. There’s an early industrial complex for finishing textiles, a gold mine and a water-powered sawmill. I felt like a kid again as I peered into the candlemaker’s workshop and the goatherd’s mountain hut.
The restaurant on the grounds is part of the museum, a village tavern from a region between Transylvania and Muntenia, famous for its plum brandy (tuica). The inn was built in 1850 by a family who used it as their shop, pub and lodge until 1952.
I’d been told by some of the other spouses to be sure to eat there. I thought of Paul Kovi when I ordered the cabbage cooked in bacon with the homemade sausages. They were grilled over an open fire by a zaftig cook who grimaced when I took her picture. After we ate, spicing our meals with fresh hot peppers served as garnish, I went back, sans camera, and gave her the thumbs up.
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Taylor is a culinary historian and the author of four cookbooks. He blogs at www.hoppinjohns.net.