Written articles on travel, outdoors and culture photography by Susanna Patras – Pictured Travel.

Rupea, a Medieval Fortress located between Fagaras and Sighisoara

On a recent trip to Transylvania, I stopped to visit Rupea Fortress, a recently renovated Medieval fortress with a very old history. According to archeological discoveries, this fort was built by the ancient Romanians, the Dacians, and named Rumidava (“dava” meaning “fort” or “fortress”). Later on, as some of the Dacian territories were conquered by the Roman Empire, the fort was destroyed and rebuilt by the Romans with the name Rupes. During the Medieval times it became Rupea. This fortress was an important military and trading center due to its key position at the crossroads connecting Transylvania to Moldova and Wallachia, the three most important regions that once formed Dacia, nowadays Romania.

In the shadow of Dracula

When traveling to Transylvania, the first thing that comes to one’s mind is Dracula. In fact, the myth created an entire industry, from movies to annual festivals, books, hotels, foods. No other Romanian Prince (although Romania has many other quite extraordinary historical figures) was able to match Dracula’s international fame. Of course, part of his popularity is due to Bram Stoker, the Irish novelist who made Dracula truly immortal with his pen and a lot of imagination.

Vlad Dracul (Dracul means Dragon in Romanian) whose family belonged to the Order of the Dragon, was born in Sighisoara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best preserved Medieval towns in Europe. A small inscription mentioning Vlad’s birth date (b. 1431) can be observed in the yellow house next to the Clock Tower, the main gate into the Medieval Town.

Vlad Dracula’s beginnings in life were pretty much similar to that of any other child born into a Transylvanian family of Romanians. But certain events in his early years, such as growing up in Moldavia alongside his cousin Stephen (who was to become Stephen the Great, the Prince of Moldavia), or being imprisoned in Turkey by the Sultan in order to force his father, Prince Vlad II, ruler of Walachia, to obey the Ottoman empire, shaped the personality of the future Prince of Walachia.

His enemies nicknamed him “The Impaler”, not because Vlad invented this type of punishment, which was very common in the 15th century Europe, but because they wanted to paint him as something indestructible, therefore, evil. Hence, the association between his family name, Dracul – the Dragon with the Devil (the dragon has held various significances in different cultures; in Asia, it is the symbol of power and majesty, whereas in Christianity it is seen as a creature of darkness, hiding in underground caves). But what really convinced his enemies that he was “related to the Devil”, was Vlad’s zero tolerance for traitors (usually
the boyars at the Walachian Court) and the expansionist Ottoman Empire.

Vlad was the first king to use deadly germs in warfare, most notably against the frequent Ottoman invasions. One war, in particular, drew the attention of several neighboring countries. In 1462, Pope Pius II sent a special investigator to Buda, to determine the fate of the money that the Vatican gave to Matias Corvin, the King of Hungary (his father was the Romanian Prince Iancu of Hunedoara), who was supposed to join Vlad in the fight against the Ottoman Empire. As the help never arrived, Vlad ended up against the Ottomans alone with his small and outnumbered Walachian army. Niccolo de Modrussa, the Vatican investigator and historian, left a 215 page manuscript detailing his personal meetings with Vlad Dracula, as well as with some of his soldiers. As the Ottoman army waited to cross the Danube River into Walachia, Vlad gathered all the sick people he could find, dressed them up as Turkish soldiers and sent them in the middle of the Turkish army. The sick infected with deadly viruses (malaria, typhoid fever, etc) spread the diseases throughout the Ottoman camp and many Turkish soldiers died before the actual battle. Vlad Dracula and his soldiers also frequently dressed up as Turkish soldiers to carry out blitz night attacks against their enemies.

Modrussa’s writings portray a Vlad Dracula that was loved and admired by his people, a diehard patriot, who would not back down against any threat and would always lead his men in the battle. Many of the German, Hungarian and Slavic Medieval chronicles that describe Dracula as being blood thirsty and evil might have been heavily influenced by the political animosities of the time and the fact that Vlad was in conflict with the Saxon and Hungarian settlers into Transylvania, a territory that historically belonged to the Romanians since the ancient times.

Today, Vlad Dracula’s house is both a museum and a restaurant in the famous Medieval Town, one of the few completely preserved medieval towns in Europe, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. No visit to Sighisoara would be complete without a glass of wine or palinca (the Transylvanian brandy) paired with a traditional Romanian or Saxon meal in the historic town, in places such as the Stag House (Casa cu cerb), the Tinsmith’s House (Casa Cositorarului), the Saxon House (Casa Saseasca), or Dracula’s House.

Sighisoara was a Roman fort during the ancient times. In the 12th century, the city was rebuilt on the Roman ruins by a group of Saxon merchants who settled in Transylvania at the invitation of the Hungarian King. Hungarians gained some control of Transylvania at the end of the 11th century after several battles with the Romanian rulers (or, Voievods). The city, originally named Castrum Sex (or, Fort Six) continued to develop during the 14th and 15th centuries. The most important features are its ancient ruins and beautiful medieval architecture. Recommended sites to visit: Vlad Dracula’s birthplace house, the nine towers of the medieval city, the Church on the Hill renowned for its 500 years old frescoes, the Venetian House built in the 13th century, the Gothic Church of the Dominican Monastery built in the 17th century, and the Clock Tower.

Every year, usually at the end of July, Sighisoara hosts a Medieval Festival. The festival is meant to emphasize Sighisoara’s rich historical and cultural heritage through a display of Medieval costumes, traditional foods and drinks, art, shows, music, dances and fighting competitions. During the festival, the tourist filled streets of Sighisoara mixed with Medieval knights, princesses, merchants, historical characters, and street entertainers really feel like a place from another time.

Mud Volcanoes Natural Park – Romania’s lunar landscape

The Mud Volcanoes Natural Park is located on the outskirts of the village of Berca, near the city of Buzau, in the southern part of Moldova, Romania, about two hours drive from Bucharest and Brasov.

This natural geological reserve consists of two areas: Piclele Mari and Piclele Mici. The road passes first through the Berca village and then winds up and down through a hilly area covered in long grasses and shrubs.

There are signs directing travelers to the two separate mud volcano entrances. The cost is 4 Ron per person (about 1 Euro) for the entire day. Once inside, the landscape is pretty much composed of mud dunes, cones, textures, bubbling mud, pools of mud and mud eruptions. A thick smell of gas floats in the air. Please be aware that mud volcanoes are not like lava volcanoes, which are quite big. These are miniature volcanoes compared to the lava volcanoes. The mud erupts from holes in the ground due to natural gases that push mud mixed with water to the surface, similar somewhat to geysers. The bubbling mud flowing out of holes forms cones. The cones vary in size. In time, the old cones  disappear as new ones pop up. The mud dries after a period of time offering some amazing cracked textures.

The best seasons to get the most out of the volcanoes are Fall and Spring. The Mud Volcanoes Natural Park in Romania is the second of this type in Europe. Other places in Europe where mud volcanoes formed on the surface are in Italy, Ukraine, Russia and Moldova. In other parts of Europe, mud volcanoes are found under water, like the ones in Norway.

Right next to Piclele Mari there is a lodge called “Pensiunea Vulcanii Noroiosi”, the only one in the area. The restaurant is good when not too crowded and it also serves tasty traditional Romanian food, but the rooms are nothing fancy, just very basic. One can find more upscale accommodation options in the nearby city of Buzau, just 40 minutes away. Other accommodation options are in the village of Siriu (located on the DN 10 road from Buzau to Brasov) in the vicinity of Siriu Lake/Dam and Casoca/Pruncea Waterfall, which are both worth visiting, as well.

Visiting Maramures – A place like no other…

Maramures is located in the Northern part of Romania, a land rich in myths and traditions that date back to the times of the Dacians (ancient Romanians), ancient Greeks and the Roman Empire.

According to archeological findings, Maramures was inhabited since pre-historic times. The first Indo-European settlements (Dacian, Celtic, Sarmatian and Germanic) discovered in Sapanta, Sighet, Saliste, Ieud, Tisa, Rozavlea, and other places, date back 2,000 years BC. During the ancient times, Dacians built several fortresses at Sighet, Oncesti, Slatina and Calinesti. Maramures became famous in the 1st century BC under King Burebista, one of the most important Dacian kings.

During the early part of the middle ages, Maramures was part of Moldavia. Later on, it became part of Transylvania. This province was ruled by Maramures’ noblemen until the 11th century. After that it was ruled by the Huns/Hungarian Empire, and in 1867, by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After WWI, Maramures was split in two, and the Southern part came back to Romania. The Northern part was first given to Czeckoslovakia, then during WWII it was again controlled by Hungary, and after WWII was taken by USSR and given to Ukraine.

Geographically, Maramures occupies one of the biggest depressions in the Carpathians (approx. 10,000 sq km), and it is completely surrounded by mountains. Its deep forests are home to several protected species of plants and animals, such as yew, larch, swiss pine, edelweiss, chamois, lynx, alpine marmot, brown bear, European bison extinct since 1852 (a symbol of Maramures), and lostrita, a rare type of salmon that still lives in Maramures’ rivers. Pietrosul Peak (2303m) in Maramures’ Rodnei mountains is also the highest peak in the Eastern Carpathians.

Maramures is famous for several things: its unique hand crafted wood works, the Merry Cemetery at Sapinta, where death is dealt with in a very humorous way (the only one of this type in Europe so far), the traditional way of harvesting and small scale farming that have vastly disappeared in most European countries, its foods, its drinks, and its music and traditional clothing that still preserve elements dating back to the ancient Dacian culture.

Maramures is the place with the greatest number of wooden monasteries, all of them with a very distinct style, such as Birsana Monastery, or Surdesti Wooden Church. Equally beautiful are the wooden gates and fences that adorn Maramures’ houses. Wood started to be exclusively used in constructions a few centuries ago due to very strict rules imposed by the Hungarian & Habsburg empires on the Maramures people to prevent them from building strong fortifications that withstood foreign invasions. Over time, people in Maramures turned wood work into an art form. Maramures is also the birth place of many famous Romanian freedom fighters (or “haiduci”) somewhat similar to Robin Hood, the most famous of them being Pintea Viteazul (Pintea the Brave).

Other recommended attractions: a trip back in time with Vaser Valley Railway (or “Mocanita”) through the breathtaking landscape of Rodnei mountains, a visit to Sighetu Marmatiei Prison (“Memorialul Durerii”) – the most infamous communist prison in Romania, which has been turned into a museum after Ceausescu’s death, the Mineralogical Museum in Baia Mare, the Museum of Ethnography and Folk Art in Baia Mare, and Horses Waterfall (or “cascada cailor”) located near Borsa ski resort in Rodnei mountains.

Those who want to spend a day or two vacationing in Maramures, will be surprised to find a variety of traditional guest houses and small hotels that serve  Romanian dishes using fresh ingredients from privately owned local farms. My favorite places to stay in Maramures are: Alex Villa and Trout Farm, which is located in a beautiful natural setting just outside the Mara village on the DN 18 road to Baia Mare; Gabriela Hotel, located in the small town of Viseul de Sus, near Mocanita rail road; and The Suior Hotel located in Gutai mountains, about 18 km away from the city of Baia Mare.

Voronet Monastery, the most famous painted Medieval monastery in Romania

In the Northern part of Romania, between Moldova and Transylvania, lies Bucovina, a beautiful countryside sprinkled with forested hills and small mountains. It is the home of some of the most beautiful monasteries in Eastern Europe, the painted monasteries of Bucovina. These Byzantyne style religious monuments were built during the 15th and 16th centuries and their most impressive features are the intricate and vividly colored frescoes painted on the exterior, as well as the interior walls, the murals, and the overall architecture. The frescoes are a way to visually tell various stories from the Bible.

The most famous of all is Voronet monastery built in 1488 by the Moldavian Prince Stephen the Great. According to the legend, Stephen was on the brink of losing a big war against the Ottoman Empire. He was in a bad mood and sought advice from a hermit who lived near Voronet village. Daniel advised the prince to continue the fight. This was one of the most impressive and hard won battles in Romanian history, known as the Battle of Vaslui. Stephen built and dedicated the Voronet monastery to Saint George to celebrate his victory. Daniel became the first abbot of Voronet monastery and was buried inside it.

The monastery can be accessed through the city of Gura Humorului. A sign indicates to turn onto a pretty narrow and sometimes bumpy road. After passing by Moldova river and leaving behind a crossroad, the picturesque Voronet village emerges. The village is older than the monastery. Many residents of this area are skilled in hundreds of years old traditional arts and crafts, visible not only in the architectural style of the houses, but also in the art that villagers put out on display.

Voronet monastery is surrounded by forested mountains and a high-walled fence. The entrance fee is 10 Roni (approx. $2.50) per person. The first thing your eyes will experience is the beautiful balance between the dominant blue color of the exterior frescoes and the blue sky (… on a clear day). Voronet church is famous for this special hue of blue named “the Voronet blue” and for its Gothic style architecture.

In addition to scenes from the Bible, the frescoes also include a painting of Prince Stephen the Great and several symbols, such as the Moldavian coat of arms. The inside of the church was painted during Stephen’s reign, while the outside was painted at the request of Stephen’s son, Prince Petru Rares.

Petru took his father’s concept even further and is credited with turning all monasteries of Bucovina into works of art, by adding exterior frescoes. He built the monasteries of Humor (1530) and Probota (1530), while his father built Putna (1466), Patrauti (1487), and Voronet. This became a tradition during the Middle Ages. Every time a prince came out of a battle victorious, he would build a monastery dedicated to a Christian Orthodox saint. The painted monasteries of Bucovina are so unique that have been included on the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list since 1993. The other three are: Sucevita (1584), Moldovita (1532), and Arbore (1503-1541).