My trip to Transylvania
My romantic vision of Transylvania is filled with gypsies in colourfully painted caravans, layered skirts, horse whispering and music. I visited at the beginning of spring with my great friend James Merrell, when it was as if the whole world was about to bloom. The days were warm and cloudless, crisp in the morning and fresh. The landscape was a vision of soft, muted colours. I can only imagine how different my colour palette would have been if I had come just two weeks later.
Transylvania is a region in Romania, a country of its own at another time in history, and an example of the fluid maps and ever-changing borders of the world, though the small villages and townspeople have remained much the same for hundreds of years. The second-longest mountain range in Europe, the Carpathian Mountains, provides the backdrop and harbours the largest populations of wolves, brown bears, lynxes and chamois in Romania, as well as the largest area of ancient woodlands in Europe. This is a place of fairytales, horse & carts and medieval villages where you navigate your way with hand-drawn maps past dark faces with moustaches hidden under hats.
These are medieval villages and many are not much changed. The Romanians are ploughing potato patches, ready for seeding by May 1st and the soundscape is filled with bells attached to the working horses. Other background noises are church bells tolling, bees humming, cuckoos and woodpeckers and the clip-clop of horses on roads. The occasional all-purpose tractors are the only motor noise.
On a warm and cloudless day, we set out from Zalanpatak on a bear hunt. First essential stop was to fill our water bottles at the 100-year-old spring. A hollowed trunk serves as a well with pebbles & stones in the bottom and a wooden lid sitting on top. It is well known that the surrounding Carpathian Mountains and woodlands are filled with bears & wolves. We hear shepherds’ whistles herding the ferocious dogs that protect their flocks from these wild animals. We climb higher with hellebores and wild orchids underfoot, and head to a grove of silver birch with spring leaves offering dappled shade for a picnic lunch on the mountainside. Caraway brandy and boiled eggs are on the menu.
On a late-afternoon walk we saw pine branches tied with paper streamers hung on church doors, perhaps a celebration or warding off of evil.
A missed turn in Transylvania on the way from Miklosvar to Viscri led onto a forest track. Heading NW (or so we hoped), early spring leaves of birch & oak, plum & apple blossom lined the road as we followed a river. We passed some children collecting wild strawberries, a one-armed horse-and-cart driver, some campers with their beers cooling in the stream, many steep cart tracks leading into the higher forest, and a coal-burning camp.
Leading up to the villages, on the tops of poles and roofs alike, townspeople create specially placed platforms up high. The storks arrive on March 15th every year to raise their chicks, and leave on August 26th. Because of their giant size, they appear as garlands floating on the peaks of buildings.
My good friend and editor Leta gifted me the fabulous book Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor before my travels to Romania. I had the pleasure of reading it while I was there. On his own travels through the region, he wrote in a giant notebook that he promptly lost for 50-odd years. It romanticised my journey and I always thought that around the next bend there would be gypsies dancing and hanging their skirts to dry by the river. He met such fantastic people and spent long lazy summer days & nights having parties with gypsy music, falling in love and wandering through the woodlands.
The timing of my arrival in Transylvania was at the key to my colour palette. A vision of soft and muted hues were informed by a sense of time-worn tradition and the influence of seasonal variation on the landscape. Tune in next week as I explore the colours of this enchanting land.