Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Viscri - The Royal Heart of Transylvania

Transylvania - it is enough to mention the word and its magic bursts out with a long chain of stereotypes: Dracula, medieval castles, myths, traditions, garlic, forests, wolves and mountains. I have a good news for you: it exists and still has it all for you to day-dream!

Today, part of Romania, Transylvania shares a rich history with the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy. This is why all the places bear 3 names in Romanian, Hungarian and German and the traveler still can meet the 3 cultures living together for more than 800 years.

My destination: Viscri (German: Deutschweißkirch; Hungarian: Szászfehéregyháza)

I heard that it is a magic place that charmed even HRH Charles Prince of Wales and wanted to check it myself. We are driving from Brasov to Bunesti village and then turn left to Viscri. The road is very bad and it seems to be left like that on purpose in order to keep away the hoards of superficial tourists not willing to sacrifice their comfort for a bit of authenticity. The sun-set leaves a sparkling clear sky and once the dark has arrived, the sky became an astronomical observatory feast for the eye with billions of stars all blinking only for you!

Sleeping in Transylvania

After a long travel we fall asleep in the heat of the wooden stove in traditional beds that seem like drawers pulled out of thousands of Baroque embroideries. The first rays of sun creep through the window blinds. We survived our first night in Transylvania, hiding a clove of garlic bellow the pillow.

You look out the window and notice that you woke up in a scene forgotten in the Middle Ages. Pale coloured houses with huge gates, geese, hens, ducks, cats, dogs, cows - somebody please pinch me!

At the Table

Breakfast is served usually in the courtyard under the wine but the autumn days are chilly and I preferred to stick to the wooden stove for some more warmth. Everything ending on the breakfast table has been produced maximum 50 meters around the house: the oven baked bread, the eggs, the cow milk, the cheese, butter, honey, the thousand herbs for the infusion, the pancakes with apples and the world famous organic jams and marmalade made of berries, rose-hip, apricots and Prince Charles' favourite the rhubarb jam.

The Charmed Prince

The Prince's involvement in the local community has a huge impact in the sustainable development of Viscri and its inhabitants and gave the place a large exposure to the world. The Romanian and international press often picture Prince Charles on a stroll through the village, greeting people, assisting at daily activities such as hay cutting, elder-flower picking, jam or brandy making. All these activities are done manually in the way they have been carried for centuries and seems that the living traditions fascinated the British royal who is constantly shipping to the Buckingham Palace the best of Transylvanian crops or products. The rhubarb jam is such a product. Made with love by local grandmothers using organic rhubarb it was recently packed in a special jar with silver threads and silver spoon and launched this October in Paris as a royal delicacy.

Bears, Wolves and Wild Orchids

Transylvania's unspoiled nature is home to wild animals long gone from the European landscape such as the brown bear, the wolf, the eagle) as well as a rich flora: on the rolling hills of Viscri every square meter embraces over 150 different species of flowers such as the wild orchid. Locals say that Prince Charles is often accompanied by a British biologist who helps him identify the different plants. Your morning infusion will most likely be a cocktail of happiness made of medicinal plants from here.

Hosts to Cry For

Gerda and Nicu Gherghiceanu were fenomenal hosts: their warm welcoming, hospitality and cooking was overwhelming. Their house, number 22 still preserves the original village atmosphere of our grandparents!

In fact the hosting project started here in the early 1990s when an American tourist caught by the falling night is asking a local for shelter. Early in the morning he is welcomed with a big breakfast with eggs, home made bread, jam and freshly milked bread. Suddenly he starts to cry in tears to the surprise of the host who later finds out that the American was so touched by the genuine hospitality that reminded him of the love and treats he used to receive during his childhood from his grandmother, a feeling long gone and lost in the American urban society.

This episode was an eye opener for the host and local community, understanding that love and hospitality are valuable currencies that abound in the neighbourhood.   

800 Years of History

Starting with the 1141 rule of the Hungarian King Geza II, Transylvania witnesses a 100 year of colonization with a Germanic population originally from the region of Moselle (present Luxembourg) generically called Saxons in order to defend the south eastern borders of the Hungarian Kingdom. 

They have arrived in Viscri taking over the Szekler/Szekely built little church dating back to 1100 AD. The Saxons started to extend it and build strong fortifications dotted with 4 strong towers and 2 bastions (1525). In the 1700s a second ring of fortifications has been erected. 

Today the fortified church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hope or The Return of the Prodigal Sons

Don't miss the village museum exhibition in the residence tower and the circular covered corridor explaining the 800 year old history of the local Saxon population. Unfortunately their number dropped dramatically especially after the fall of communism in 1989 when most of them chose to emigrate to Germany. Few decided to stay in the village where they were born. Our host, Gerda explained that she could not get used to the German life style. She missed the fresh clean air, the starry skies, the flavours of the fruits and vedge from her garden, the freedom, the joy of her neighbours. 

With the latest developments (Romania's integration in the European Union, Prince Charles' presence and support via Mihai Eminescu Trust, the set-up of Adept Foundation and new economic perspectives) there are few returning fine and talented young people in Viscri. 

Other Things Not to Be Missed

Tourism and agriculture are the main activities here. You can make bread or jam, visit the sheepfold, meet the bees and the bee keeper, hiking or cycling through the wild flower meadows or the secular oak and beech tree forests. Viscri could be a great base to discover the other 150 medieval fortified churches in the heart of Transylvania. 

The Kingdom of Jams

Bellow you can imagine the variety of the local jam industry initiated by Gerda in 2006 to capture the ancient tradition of producing different kinds of homemade jams, compotes and ‘dulciazia’ (fruits in syrup similar to Bosnian slatko) using the fruit that grows in the courtyard or orchard or that is picked in the uncontaminated meadows and woods of this area.

Wild forest fruits: blackberries, cornelian cherries, pears, raspberries, strawberries;
Wild meadow fruits: blackberries, bullace (red and yellow mirabelle), cornelian cherries, rose-hip, sea buckthorn, strawberries;
Orchard fruits: apple, pear, plum, quince, sour cherry, walnut;
Courtyard fruits: blackcurrant, gooseberry, raspberry, redcurrant, rhubarb, strawberry, white currant.

HRH The Prince of Wales' Properties in Viscri

Local Architecture

Transylvania - Sweet Homeland

Useful Links

Fundatia Adept: http://www.fundatia-adept.org/, https://www.facebook.com/FundatiaAdeptTransilvania
Discover Tarnava Mare Region: http://www.discovertarnavamare.org/
HRH The Prince of Wales' Properties in Transylvania: http://www.transylvaniancastle.com/viscri.html#
Mihai Eminescu Trust: http://www.mihaieminescutrust.org

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Veliko Tarnovo

For most western Europeans, Bulgaria tends to be a country blurred and lost in the far east corner of the European map. Sandwiched between Romania, Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Macedonia and the Black Sea, the country is a treasure box worthwhile to be discovered. 

Getting There

A possible gateway is the so called "Friendship Bridge" over Europe's largest river, the Danube, linking the Romanian border town Giurgiu (at only 60 km south of Bucharest) to the Bulgarian town of Ruse. 

Either you are renting a car or using the extensive bus network, I would recommend to head 100 km to the south-west to the town of Veliko Tarnovo.

Why come to Veliko Tarnovo?

First of all for its natural setting: I opened the window of my hotel room and I see a giant natural amphitheatre with the new town on my right and the old town on my left, with houses gathered together on abrupt slopes. Yantra river meanders and increases the beauty of the place together with the rolling mountains in the background.

For Its history

It was here where in 1185 two local noblemen started the liberation movement under the Byzantines and founded the capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom that stretched from the Black Sea in the east to the Adriatic in the west and the Aegean sea in the south. In 1393 the Ottomans conquer the fortress commencing 500 years of occupation and a different dynamic of development. After the liberation in 1877, Veliko Tarnovo becomes again capital for 2 more years when the elected Prince Alexander Battenberg and the first national assembly moved the capital to Sofia.

Architecture of a Capital

Tsarevets medieval fortress is the most visited historical site in the country.

The fortress impresses more by its strategic location and the beauty of the scenery. Except the walls, bastions and the patriarch's cathedral on the tip of the mountain, the visitor needs to fuel his imagination in order to get excited by the ruins of over 40 churches, the royal court and hundreds of dwellings. The poor signs (in Bulgarian, Russian and German) don't give too much insight either on the Ottoman period and archaeological excavations are scattered with reconstructed sites, making difficult to distinct the original from the newly done. The highlight of the fortress though kicks off in the evening hours. Every night at 8.20 pm a 20 minute light and music show tells the history of Veliko Tarnovo and Bulgaria.

Veliko Tarnovo is not only the fortress. In case you are not on a tourist marathon of ticking the main places in your guide books I would warmly advise to loose yourself on the small streets that go up and down the hills, exploring the views of the church domes, the traditional houses surrounded by flowers and shady vine.  It is a place where time flows slowly and densely, a place to hear the sound of your steps and take a deep breath. Even if you are not religious, enter in a small church and sense the sound, the light, the cracks in the paintings or the darkness of the time that covers the icons. 

The House of the Little Monkey designed in 1849 in national revival style by the local architect Kolyo Ficheto. 

Hadji Nikoli Inn is the last surviving inn of 70 that used to host travelers here in Tarnovo. Built in 1858 by the master builder Kolyo Ficheto is beautifully restored and hosts an art gallery with exhibitions on loan from Bulgarian museums.

The former inn is located in the charming Samovodska Charshiya (or market) district with many souvenir shops as well as workshops. I particularly enjoyed meeting the icon painter, Ventsislav Shtarkov and his icons done on old wood.

Arbanassi - The Village of Saints

Situated at only 5 km from Veliko Tarnovo on the hights of the neighbouring mountains, Arbanassi is a must see village dotted with medieval tiny churches that treasure fine Eastern Christian art. What really impressed me was the small scale of these churches. In fact the piousness of a community is not measured by the heights of the cathedrals and the human scale of the buildings are creating a fairy tale like place. 

There are 4 small churches and 2 monasteries all covered inside with beautiful frescoes. Worth to mention is the Church of Nativity and the three handed Madonna miracle making icon in the Monastery of the Sveta Bogoroditsa (Holy Virgin). Tip: start your day visiting the churches in Arbanassi as they tend to close earlier than the foreseen timetable.

The village was established during the 15-th century by Albanian Christian refugees from the Ottoman threat that continued to use Greek language throughout the time. In exchange for guarding the pass giving access to Tarnovo, the inhabitants were granted autonomy and fiscal privileges. This encouraged local manufacturers and craftspeople and the place flourished till 1798 when Ottoman bandits' raids brought with them the fall. 

This St Dimitur Church, the place where the aristocratic brothers Assen and Peter declared independence from the Byzantine empire in 1185.

Inventors of Yogurt & Flavours

If you ask me what impressed me most from my short Bulgarian visit I would say it loud and clear: the food! I believe that Bulgarian cuisine could compete with the Mediterranean one in terms of flavours, the balanced use of spices, textures, colours, combinations, the Ottoman heritage blended with the local diversity of ingredients: organic vegetables, fruits, cheeses, meats, nuts.

In fact we need to thank Bulgarians for inventing the yogurt!
Shtastlivetsa ("The Happy Man") Restaurant is THE best place to eat in town and among the best in the whole Bulgaria. There are Bulgarians coming from as far as Sofia just for a memorable dinner here! It is a less formal place, with a great service, a never-ending traditional Bulgarian food offer and great views over the Yantra river and valley. www.shtastliveca.com 

Shopping for Voices

When shopping in Veliko Tarnovo look for a music CD with the "Mystery of Bulgarian Voices" (Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares) - Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir. Their voices seem like coming from the depths of time, striking with their timbre, modal scales and dissonant harmonies. With this unique experience I can easily imagine how the songs of the antiquity mermaids could have sounded. When listening I feel charmed and taken away in a dream-like land.

Bulgaria has all the ingredients of charm: untouched nature, human sized architecture, spirituality, warm people, rich traditions and folklore, tasty organic food and loads of sunny days to enjoy.