Places

The Mihaileni Canyon

There’s a small canyon in the countryside between Medias and Sibiu called Canionul Mihăileni. A river split open a hill right down the middle, creating a rift where some fossils were found. The river’s no longer around. It’s an interesting site and one which we tried to find one day but couldn’t, because there are no signs and no guides in the area. We drove around till it got dark and then we figured we’d best stop and turn back, or else we might find ourselves stranded in a field overnight. There are only dirt roads there, with deep ruts in places and rocks sticking out of the mud — just the kind of a situation that can gift you with a broken oil pan and a seized engined. At the time we had a VW Golf, which is infamous for the low placement of its oil pan. It’s like a short-legged horse with low-hanging you-know-whats. One hit and it’s going legs-up… It happened to us more than once.

Long story short, the photos you’ll see here are “not exactly” from the Mihăileni Canyon. They’re from the approximate area. But it was autumn, there were rolling hills all around and the foliage was beautiful, so photography-wise, it wasn’t a disappointment. Maybe someday we’ll make it to the actual canyon. Enjoy the photographs!

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Places

The fortified church in Moardas

There is a fortified church in the small village of Moardăș in Transilvania, also known as “Mardisch” in German and “Mardos” in Hungarian. A strange-sounding name in Romanian, Moardăș it seems has cuman origins and comes from the precursors of the Hungarians of today. The older name seems to have been Ardesch (as the Saxons pronounced it), first mentioned in written documents in 1373 along with a priest named Michael of Ardesch. The village later became known as Mardesch, with the other variations being Muardesch and Muerdesch in the Saxon dialect.

In the village of Moardas, Transilvania, Romania

Just to show you how small it was, a census taken in 1516 counted 40 households, three widows, a shepherd, a miller and a schoolteacher. By 1532, when Johannes Honterus visited the region to draw a map of Transilvania, the count shrunk to 32 households. In spite of the village’s small size, it had a schoolhouse even in the early 1400s, a fact known because one of its bright young people, a Michael Eckhard of Ardisch, enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1434 to become a lawyer.

We jump to 1850 or so, when the village school gets rebuilt (1848) and a new census reveals the place has gotten bigger. It now has 545 inhabitants. In 1930, 628 inhabitants live in the village. That number shrinks in 1945, when the Communist regime ships quite a few of the Saxons in the village to the Soviet Union, into forced labor camps. Another census taken in 1946 reveals that 44 Saxons had been sent to the USSR, 45 emigrated to Germany and 262 were still in the village. After the Romanian “revolution” (read coup d’etat) of 1989, almost all of the Saxons emigrated to Germany.

I took the photographs you’ll see in this gallery in 2009, 20 years after the Saxons had left the village, leaving only a few of their elderly around. You’ll see them in these photographs below. We stopped to talk with them a bit.

Gypsies had moved into the empty Saxon houses and had systematically destroyed them: sold whatever they could (furniture, goods, etc.), burned the rest for firewood and when one house would fall down, they’d move onto the next one and suck it dry until it fell. By the way, in the States there’s a term for this: it’s called house-squatting and it’s illegal. It’s also illegal in Romania. It’s easier to evict illegal squatters in Romania than it is in the States. All that needs to happen is for the families of the Saxons who own the homes to reclaim the property. Even if it’s been decades, the heirs can successfully reclaim a house. It takes a few months to work that through the legal system but then the problem’s solved for good. I say these things because my heart aches when I see solid, beautiful Saxon homes, built by hard-working, honest farming folk, defaced and brought to the point of ruin by irresponsible social scum. I could show you stuff that’s much worse, in this village and in many others in Southern Transilvania, but I don’t want to go near those places because I’ll get too angry when I see the horrible damage.

Enough crap! Let’s get to the good stuff! Here are images of the fortified church. When we visited, the surrounding fortified wall had mostly fallen down but the church itself was in surprisingly good shape, and so was the parish house next door. That’s because they had the good luck to be renovated in 1913 and again in 1959. By 2009, the altar had been robbed of its valuable center painting and the various religious symbols and objects. The organ had been sold off. The church walls were still standing though. The floor could do with repairs and there were some leaks coming through the roof.

Good news though! Only a year later, in 2010, a work of restoration was spearheaded by a local Saxon, Fritz Roth. Specialists from Germany (Hans Seger and Hans Gröbmayr from München) came to help, a workforce of 30 volunteers was brought in and funds were obtained in part from the US Ambassadors’ Fund for Cultural Preservation. Mark Gitenstein was the US Ambassador to Romania at the time. The restored church was re-consecrated in October of 2011. My photos don’t tell this last part of the story, because they were taken in 2009. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to revisit the place and see how it looks now.

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Places

The Bolyai Castle

This castle with a rich history is now found in an advanced state of ruin in the out-of-the-way village of Buia (“Bell” in German, “Bólya” in Hungarian) in Transilvania, Romania. I took these photographs in 2009. I don’t know how much of it still stands today, eight years later. The castle isn’t big but it is interesting in its mix of gothic and baroque architecture and it must have looked beautiful when it was in good shape. In its heyday, it had 12 rooms. The courtyard was paved and furnished with stone tables and chairs. Outside, there was a walking alley lined with chestnut trees. Pine trees were planted all around the castle. One source says the castle’s chapel possibly existed even before the castle itself and was integrated into one of its wings afterward. Another source says there existed at one point a particularly gruesome execution room where the guilty were thrown into sickle blades, and that there was a tall linden tree just outside the castle where people were hung and kept there as an example for others.

The full name of the place is the Toldi-Bolyai Castle and its construction dates from 1324. If the name Bolyai sounds familiar to you, that’s because the largest university in Romania is named Babeș-Bolyai and it’s in Cluj-Napoca, about 2 hours away by car from this castle. Another written mention from 1467 says it belonged to Vízaknai Miklós, about whom I cannot find more information, but given that Vízaknai is Ocna Sibiului, which is not far away from Buia, I take it Miklós was the ruler of the region at that time. In 1599, we find the castle in the possession of Mihai Viteazul, a legendary Romanian ruler, to whom it was gifted by Báthory Zsigmond (the ruler of Transilvania at the time) after the battle of Șelimbăr, along with a number of villages in the area. After Mihai’s death, the castle came to the Gálfi family; Gálfi János left an inscription above the castle’s entrance which is barely visible now. It was then gifted to Toldi György (hence the castle’s name) by Bethlen Gábor, who was Prince of Transilvania at the time. The Toldi family kept the castle until the 19th century. In 1920, the castle became the property of the government of Romania. A village dispensary was built there by modifying some of the rooms for the needs of medical personnel. It functioned until 1978, after which the place was left to the winds and was used for the storage of various village goods without any care at all for its state.

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Places

The fortified church in Bahnea

This historic church is a bit harder to find. Bahnea (“Bachnen” in German, “Bonyha” in Hungarian) is a small village off the main roads, which you can only reach by driving on narrower county roads. The church itself is also hard to spot even when you’re in the village, because it’s hidden away behind the houses and backyard gardens, on a small hill. Here is a link to its location on Google Maps. It is a beautiful structure though, with lots of history, and the priest is an easygoing Hungarian fellow who is glad to talk with you and show you around.

The village is first mentioned in written documents in 1291. The church dates to the beginning of the 14th century, sometime between 1300-1350. The owners of the church (and the village) were the Bánffy family, an old Hungarian aristocratic family with lots of history and properties (castles and palaces) in Transilvania.

Just like the Saxons, the Hungarians who came to live in Transilvania were initially Catholic and later became Reformed. The Saxons became Evangelical around 1500 and the Hungarians became Reformed around 1600. So it was with the Church. Built Catholic, its walls were adorned with frescoes and its columns with various sculptures and Green Men. Come the Reformation, the frescoes were whitewashed and some of the sculptures defaced, and they stayed that way until the 20th century, when a restoration effort uncovered some of them.

Enjoy the photographs!

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Places

Sighisoara: on the beaten path

As opposed to these photos, the ones you’ll see here are popular sights most tourists get to see (or not, depending on what they’re looking at). Enjoy!

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Places

The fortified church in Copsa Mare

The construction of the Saxon church in the village of Copsa Mare (“Gross-Kopisch” in German and “Nagykapus” in Hungarian) started in the 14th century and underwent transformations in order to further fortify it in 1510, 1519 and 1797. In 1800, the organ was installed. In 1854, the Gothic altar was replaced with a Baroque one. The fortified wall was added in the 16th century, in 1519 to be more exact.

The village was once renowned for its vineyards. The Saxons who lived there owned the largest and best-known vineyards of Southern Transilvania. The village is first mentioned in written documents in 1283 and from those documents it can be deduced that an earlier church structure existed where the current one resides.

Planul_fortificatiei_din_Copsa_Mare

Enjoy the photographs!

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Places

The fortified church in Richis

This church in the village of Richis (“Reichesdorf” in German and “Riomfalva” in Hungarian) was built sometime between 1350-1400 and it initially functioned as a Cistercian abbey. The abbey did not have a bell tower to begin with because the Cistercian order was not allowed to have them. In 1400, it became a Catholic church and a bell tower was built as a separate structure from the church. In 1500, the fortified wall was built around the church, to defend it from invading tartars and turks.

Sometime between 1540 and 1550, the Saxons became Evangelicals and converted the decorations of the church to what they deemed as a more austere place to worship. They tore some of the medieval ornamentation, particularly the sculptures, and they whitewashed the walls, inside and out. It was only in 1957, when the newly arrived priest led an effort to scrape away the lime whitewash and restore the church that the early gothic motifs were rediscovered.

The church interior is abundant in unique animal, vegetal and human motifs. The most captivating is the “green man”, a symbol of nature’s fertility. Another symbol of the natural wealth in the region is the very name of the place, Reichesdorf, which means “wealthy village”. Should you visit, you’ll want to see the 1775 baroque altar made of sculpted wood, illustrating the Crucifixion.

The local guide of the church is Mr. Schaas, one of the few Saxons left in the village, whom you’ll see in the gallery I’ve published here. He always welcomes visitors and is glad to tell the story of the church to you.

Enjoy the photos!

 

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Places

The fortified church in Saschiz

This kind of architectural structure which combines a regularly-used church with fortified walls is typical of the region of Transilvania, where Saxons built them as places of refuge against invading tartars and turks. While larger settlements (such as Medias) could afford to build fortified walls around the entire town, villages such as Saschiz built fortified churches. There were originally 300 of these churches in Transilvania. About 150 of them remain standing.

Known as Keisd in German and Szászkézd in Hungarian, Saschiz (“Sas” = Saxon, “chiz” = Keisd) is unique because it also has a separate fortress built on one of the hilltops above the village. It (along with six other villages) is named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fortress, being relatively far from the village, didn’t see much use during times of invasion and the fortified church itself became the place where people would take refuge and do their best to withstand sieges. The fortified church was built in 1493-1496 and the fortress was begun in 1496.

The photos you’ll see here were taken in and around the fortified church. We haven’t visited the fotress yet, but we intend to do it.

I hope you enjoyed the photos! I took them with my Canon EOS 5D and the EF 24-105mm f/4L lens.

Canon EOS 5D (front)

Canon EOS 5D

Canon EF 24-105mm f4L IS USM Lens

Canon EF 24-105mm f4L IS USM Lens

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Places

The Rupea Fortress

We visited the Rupea Fortress a number of years ago, before the restoration work began. Now the work is complete and it’s amazing to see the difference. We visited it recently and took another set of photos. Those are coming soon. In the meantime, here is a set of the photos taken back when it was still falling apart.

There’s a lot of history packed into that hilltop where the fortress is built. Archeological digs found evidence of settlements dating back to 5500-3500 BC. When Romania was known as Dacia, before it was conquered and colonized by the Romans, the place was known as Rumidava. Afterward, it became known as Rupes, from the basaltic rock of the hill where it’s built. When the Saxons colonized Transilvania, the fortress became known as Castrum Kuholm, the word “kuholm” refering once again to the same basaltic rock. There is more information here, should you be interested.

I hope you enjoyed the photos! I took them with my Canon EOS 5D and the EF 24-105mm f/4L lens.

Canon EOS 5D (front)

Canon EOS 5D

Canon EF 24-105mm f4L IS USM Lens

Canon EF 24-105mm f4L IS USM Lens

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Places

The Neamt Fortress

This medieval citadel was built on the peak of a mountain near Tg. Neamț in Moldova, Romania. The origins of the original fortifications are somewhat unclear, but there is clear historical proof that the citadel as we know it now took shape during the reign of Peter I, toward the end of the 14th century and was enlarged and further fortified during the reign of Stefan cel Mare in the 15th century. After being destroyed in the 18th century, it underwent significant restoration work in the 20th century and became a museum.

While I appreciate the architectural and structural work that was put into the restoration process, I am less than enthused about the way the interiors were decorated, with puppets and props and modern light appliances. The Neamt Fortress isn’t the only one to be done in this way. The Rupea Fortress has only recently been restored and it’s the same story there. Other places I’ve visited in Europe and in the United States were done the same way. The problem is that it gets to a point where it’s too fake to be believable, even though it all seems period-appropriate at first sight. Maybe it’s just me, I don’t know. Luckily all these faults are only window-dressing, so they can be addressed gradually and without too much expense.

Enjoy the photos!

Btw, I took these photos with my Canon PowerShot G10.

Canon PowerShot G10

Canon PowerShot G10

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