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Romania: Travels in Transylvania

Romania at the turn of the 21st century captured on film

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Buying and selling pigs in a market in Szekelyudvarhely Odorheiu Secuiesc (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)
Stuck in thigh deep snow with only one horse harnessed to the sledge (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)
Stuck in thigh deep snow with only one horse harnessed to the sledge (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)

“Well, I didn’t really think they would turn up,” I said to my friend Maria. It was 5.30am and at best minus 10 Celsius. The day before, following a chance encounter in the street, our translator and guide Csilla had arranged for us to join a group of people on their sledges as they went to collect fodder from a hay barn in the hills above the village of Tarhavaspataka in Transylvania, and here they were, or so I thought.

At the start of the new millennium I visited Transylvania on three occasions spending a total of five weeks in the country including 10 days in January 2002. Working with a local translator/fixer I documented life in the Szekely region that had changed very little in literally hundreds of years.

Loading hay onto sledeges in the hills above the village of Jidegsegpataka (Hasselblad Xpan and standard 45mm lens)
Loading hay onto sledeges in the hills above the village of Jidegsegpataka (Hasselblad Xpan and standard 45mm lens)

“These aren’t the people she was talking to yesterday,” Maria replied “this is another group,” she called as we split up and each jumped onto a different sledge.

Shepherd making sheep cheese near Szekelyderz (Leica M6 and 50mm f/2 Summicron)
Shepherd making sheep cheese near Szekelyderz (Leica M6 and 50mm f/2 Summicron)

Folklore

Local folklore tells of the arrival of the Szekély (pronounced sekay) people in this region of Transylvania over a thousand years ago, while others carried on travelling to found what became present-day Hungary, but with the breaking up of the Austro – Hungarian empire at the end of the Great War they became isolated. They are fiercely patriotic and insistent that they are Hungarian, rather than Romanian, in spite of their geographical location.

Woman collecting meat stored in fortified church Szekelyderz (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)
Woman collecting meat stored in fortified church Szekelyderz (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)

It was not at all comfortable balancing on the back of the sledge, which was little more than a few long poles bound together, guided at the front by what was to all intents and purposes an over-engineered child’s toboggan.

A horse breaks free from a sledge above the village of Jidegsegpataka (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)
A horse breaks free from a sledge above the village of Jidegsegpataka (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)

Horse falls

For about an hour the horses walked and trotted along the valley bottom pulling the five sledges. Then, when we got to the hills we got off and walked in the deepening snow. It was hard going and sweat was pouring off me as we trudged on, our feet sinking as much as a foot with each step. Suddenly the horse pulling the lead sledge fell onto its side, sinking into the metre-deep snow. The only way to get the horse back up was to release it from its harness, as they did, the horse took the opportunity to bolt, leaving everyone momentarily worried. But it didn’t go far, in snow this deep it just wasn’t worth the effort of running. A few minutes later, the horse was re-harnessed and we were back on our way.

Cutting a track through deep snow to get their sledges to a barn above the village of Jidegsegpataka (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)
Cutting a track through deep snow to get their sledges to a barn above the village of Jidegsegpataka (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)

Several of the other horses fell as well as the going got steeper. Eventually, the only two-horse-sledge in the group of five took the lead to cut a path through the untouched landscape. Even beating the horses with a whip and occasionally a chain eventually failed to persuade them to go any further and we came to a standstill with the steepest part of the hill still ahead of us.

“Small problem,” I said to one of the men who I had learned spoke a little English. “Big problem,” he replied.

Early morning in Szekelyderz village as the sheep and cattle are taken out to pasture. Often just one or two from each house (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)
Early morning in Szekelyderz village as the sheep and cattle are taken out to pasture. Often just one or two from each house (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)

Two of the men linked arms and walked up the hillside cutting a path for the horses. Progress was slow and getting slower but at last, we could see the hay barn only a few hundred metres above us. Half an hour later we were there. Without a break, they immediately dug out the barn doors and started to load hay onto the five sledges one by one. By midday, the hay was loaded and they sat in the barn eating their lunch of homemade bread, cheese and szalonna (fatrich bacon), provided by the owner of the barn.

Buying and selling pigs in a market in Szekelyudvarhely Odorheiu Secuiesc (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)
Buying and selling pigs in a market in Szekelyudvarhely Odorheiu Secuiesc (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)

Communism and religion

Although the decades of communism brought collectivisation of farms throughout most of Romania, as elsewhere in the Soviet block, there is little evidence that it ever happened in this part of the country. In summer the unfenced landscape looks like a chessboard of strip farming, patches of yellow, green and brown, ploughed by horse and tended by the whole family. At higher elevations, shepherded flocks of sheep graze the hills, guarded by dogs that keep the bears at bay. The flocks are often made up of the sheep from several families, the shepherds being paid with a proportion of the cheese they produce.

An old lady at her house door in the Hungarian minority area of Transylvania (Leica M6 and 50mm f/2 Summicron)
An old lady at her house door in the Hungarian minority area of Transylvania (Leica M6 and 50mm f/2 Summicron)

Religion still plays a central role in life, with many fortified churches throughout the region being a testament to harder times. The village of Szekélyderz, however, is unique, certainly in the Szekély region and possibly Europe.

The fortified church in Szekelyderz dariju village in Transylvania (Leich M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)
The fortified church in Szekelyderz dariju village in Transylvania (Leich M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)

The church is used regularly for worship but the twenty foot high fortifications and five towers that were built over 400 years ago as protection against marauding Turks and Tartars are still used for their original purpose of storing food and valued possessions.

Man carrying sack of grain in The fortified church in Szekelyderz dariju village in Transylvania (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)
Man carrying a sack of grain in The fortified church in Szekelyderz dariju village in Transylvania (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)

Every Wednesday at seven o’clock the fortifications are opened and villagers come either carrying huge sides of bacon to leave in the whitewashed towers or just with a sharp knife and a bag, to cut a chunk off what they have already placed in store. Big wooden boxes between the towers hold wheat for bread making and other grain for animal feed. One we were told contained a dowry, but no one had ever seen it visited so its owner remains unknown.

Men eating in a bark in midwinter above the village of Jidegsegpataka Transylvania Romania after loading their sledges (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)
Men eating in a barn in midwinter above the village of Jidegsegpataka Transylvania Romania after loading their sledges (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux)

“How did an Englishman ever find our village,” one local exclaimed. Tourism here is virtually unknown. The few places to stay are both cheap, in English terms, and basic. On several occasions, we stayed in private houses. Arriving on foot in one village in the late afternoon we soon discovered that there was nowhere to stay. We were eventually directed to a private house whose owner sometimes put travellers up for the night. We were made very welcome but provided our own food, which we cooked on her stove, while she lit a tiny wood burner, heating water so that we could all take a bath.

Hungarian shepherds milk sheep to make cheese near to Szekelyderz village in Transylvania (Hasselblad Xpan and standard 45mm lens)
Hungarian shepherds milk sheep to make cheese near to Szekelyderz village in Transylvania (Hasselblad Xpan and standard 45mm lens)

During my visit I saw engineers upgrading the telephone system, bringing direct dialling to many of the villages for the first time and with it the possibility of internet access. The EU and, more enthusiastically, Hungary is funding development in the region.

In time cars will dominate the high streets and fridges and freezers will replace the need for the towers and fortifications in Szekélyderz. Elements of the Szekély culture will inevitably be lost but life will become easier. And who can deny them that?

People entering the fortified saxon church in Szekelyderz dariju village in Transylvania (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summicron)
People entering the fortified saxon church in Szekelyderz dariju village in Transylvania (Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Summicron)

Paul Glendell runs Classic Cases

All photographs in this article taken on Fuji Provia 100 RDP2 Transparency Film and E6 processed. Cameras were the Leica M6 and the Hasselblad XPan. ©Paul Glendell

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9 COMMENTS

  1. Lovely photos, Paul and I see that you used some ‘real cameras’. You have really captured Transylvania and its people very well. I wonder how much of this lifestyle remains nearly 20 years later. Cultural tourism has both plus and minus elements. In my country we ‘package’ such tourism , now. Traditional lifestyles have, however, disappeared, probably forever.

    William

  2. Thanks william, I suspect things will have changed but I also suspect that life will not be a great deal easier for these people. There may now be a few hotels and B and B type places but it was a very poor area and I doubt tourist sites will be advertised very much. I would love to return and try and meet some of those people again. There are many more stories I have associated with these visites but Macfilos doesn’t produce books !
    Paul

  3. Great photos, a lot of middle Europe seems stuck in a time warp, can’t believe no snow shoes or snowmobile, vehicle in background of pig market. Don’t know how I would have handled guy beating horse with a chain! I hope improvements and prosperity reaches them.

    • Hello John, the ‘time warp’ is very patchy and very much depends on the country. Slovakia for example has changed massively since I visited it in 1990 and is as developed as anywhere else in western europe with for example better internet access than the uk. But yes some places are still way behind but do remember these photos were taken almost 20 years ago. I would very much like to return again but to do the job properly a person who is both a translator and ‘fixer’ is required. I am pleased you like the photos

  4. Excellent photos. I sometimes forget how important it is to document the world around as unique cultures are disappearing. Kudos to you for making these images.

  5. This article was especially of interest to me as my ancestors came from Transylvania. Decades ago my aunts and uncles went there and visited one of those churches and found the family records dating back to 1600. If you have any other photos of the country side and villages would love to see them in a future post.

  6. Paul,
    Well done. I was working in Bucharest about the time they were dragging their leader down the boulevard and ventured north of Brasov in a Dacia to escape the festivities, trying to get to the Ukrainian border. It’s very pretty country. And, as you mention diverse. Transylvania wasn’t part of Romania until 1918 and the ethnic and social complexity of the former Austro-Hungarian empire is impressive. Every village or town has an almost separate history – a few kms down the road and you might be in a Saxon (Teutonic German) town.

    It was winter and snowy and there were no hotels or inns anywhere but Brasov, maybe in Fagaras? We drove into the country north of Brasov and stayed in the home of an elder of a little village. They fed us a nice meal and a few of the local gents joined us after for drinks and smokes around the table in the small house.

    Because I am American I guess, the mayor was compelled to show me his shotgun that signified his seniority, freedom and our manly kinship. We hefted, turned it in the light admiringly, grunted approvingly and continued drinking, laughing and scratching till late.

    Each room had a little beehive masonry stove that a boy stuffed a pail of twigs into and lit. It burned hot for an hour(?) and that was all the heat you got, and really needed really for that night. I’d always wondered how folks kept warm before coal and oil… Then, it was back to skidding the Dacia down icy, muddy country lanes. Thanks for the flashback…

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