A Tour of the Banat & Crisana and Transylvania Regions

In the course of the history of Romania, the western and central parts of the country have had a stormy existence, being subjected to often changes of governance, from Romanian to Hungarian and Habsburg (Austrian) rule. These have brought numerous ethnic groups that have settled in the regions of Banat and Crisana and Transylvania, coexisting more or less peacefully with the Romanian communities and contributing to the creation of a rustic individuality found nowhere else in the world.

Transylvania includes so many ethnicities that it has been rightfully called “a melting pot of nations”. Apart from Romanians, there are powerful communities of Hungarians (in the north), Szekelys (in the east) and Saxons (in the south), whose cultures bring spots of colours on our national identity. In the villages from this region, the coexistence of these different ethnic groups is a centuries-old experience reissued every single day. It appears in front of the tourist under the most varied faces: folk costumes, feasts, specific architecture, gastronomy, music and dances, crafts, superstitions, customs and traditions, all reconstructing a long-gone era.

Western Transylvania overlaps with the Apuseni Mountains in the Western Carpathians. Most of the villages, usually situated at very high altitudes, are inhabited by a Romanian population called moti. It is said that the moti have fled away from the valleys and lower areas in the 18th century, when the Habsburgs tried to force them to join their army.

During the same period, the region of Banat and Crisana was incorporated in the Habsburg Empire and colonized with Swabians, a Catholic people of German origins. Nowadays, the villages in the region also include numerous Magyars, Slovaks, Serbs and other minority communities.

Although, over the years, Transylvania was conquered and governed by various ruling authorities, the Romanian people remained faithful to its language and Orthodox religion, to which local customs and traditions of ancient pagan influence were added. The Hungarians and the Saxons, initially Catholic, had an interesting development since their coming to the area in the 10th, respectively 13th century. In the 16th century, when the Religious Reform took place in Transylvania, the Saxons adhered to Lutheranism, while the Hungarians embraced Calvinism or Unitarianism.

No matter where you’re headed to and in which village you choose to halt, the sense of closeness to the higher authority can be noted in the people’s actions and words, but, most of all, can be felt inside the churches. Whether you are entering an Orthodox parish or one of the Saxon fortified churches, a sense of God’s presence will always accompany you.

The best time to visit the two regions for religious purposes is winter, the season when you’ll have a good occasion to discover the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. And since you are already here, take your time to go for a ride with the horse-drawn sledge, one of the most interesting outdoor activities in the area, especially for kids.

Crafts & Occupations
For centuries, the peasants in Banat and Crisana and Transylvania have been working the fields, raising the animals and creating all the necessary products themselves. Ancient crafts have survived in the skilled hands of wood carvers, potters or weavers who, more often than not, create not only useful objects for their households and everyday activities, but true art forms. A good example would be the Szekelys from Corund, 11 km south of Praid, who are famous for their skill in producing green and brown pottery.

All over Transylvania, numerous communities are based on the millenary occupation of sheep-raising. Especially the rural settlements in the areas situated at the contact with the Southern Carpathians, such as the ethno-folkloric Marginimea Sibiului (near Sibiu), have kept alive the ancients occupations, crafts and traditions. Nowadays, this area is one of the most developed in what concerns the agro-tourism, attracting through its authentic village homestays, folk festivals and the numerous ethnographic museums. If you visit Marginimea Sibiului, do not miss the Museum of Icons Painted on Glass in Sibiel, which exhibits an extraordinary collection.

Moving closer to Brasov, you will find the Rucar-Bran Corridor, a space that seems to have come out from a fairytale: picturesque wooden houses in coquette villages nested along a corridor bordered by two rows of high mountains, Piatra Craiului and Bucegi. Tourists come here to climb the mountains, but, more than that, they come here to experience the authentic atmosphere that floats over these pastoral settlements. The beauty of these places is enhanced by the noisy flocks of sheep tended by shepherds who keep the secrets of preparing smoked cheese wrapped in fir bark, urda (fresh white cheese), jintita (dairy product made from urda and whey) and bulz (mamaliga with cheese inside). The hospitality of the peasants, the preservation of the ancient customs, crafts and occupations, the serenity of nature and the complexity of the landscape equally contribute to transforming the Rucar-Bran Corridor in one of the country’s most developed and attractive areas for rural, cultural and ecological tourism.

Festivals – Customs and Traditions
Every spring, around the day of St. George (April 23rd), the peasants from Banat and Transylvania celebrate the departure of the flocks of sheep to the mountains through a traditional festival called the Measurement of the Milk (Masurisul Laptelui). Similarly, the village of Bran attracts thousands of visitors every autumn, in the last Saturday of September, for the Scattering of the Sheep (Ravasitul Oilor), a traditional fair which celebrates the transhumance of the flocks. During this peasant festival, the sheep are brought from the mountains, where they have been grazing during the summer, and returned to their owners. After participating to the fair, you can visit the village’s folk craftsmen, who will introduce you into the handicrafts of making sheepskin jackets, hand weaving, knitting and embroidering, painting eggs, weaving a wicker basket, painting icons on glass or wood and creating folk masks and puppets.

The universe of the Transylvanian village conquers the travellers through the charm of the folk feasts and fairs, with their exuberant atmosphere that combines the archaic with the joy of life. Another lively feast, more accessible to tourists as it is held in Brasov every first Sunday of May, is the Pageant of the Juni. On this occasion, Brasov’s young men dress up in special costumes and walk or ride around the town, followed by the Old Juni (elder men), forming groups similar to famous military regiments. After this parade, they start dancing Romanian round-dances (hora), to the delight of the public.

Many festivals and celebrations take place across the two regions, but the most spectacular one is the Girl Fair of Mount Gaina, or, in our translation, a traditional matchmaking festival. Held every year on the Sunday before July 20th, it was initially meant for men who were away from home for long periods (to tend the sheep, for example) to find a wife. Nowadays it is the biggest festival in the area of the Apuseni Mountains, where the women come dressed in their finest folk costumes and exhibit their dowry box, containing items such as pottery or carpets. A corresponding event, called the Kiss Fair, takes place every spring in Halmagiu, 122km east of Arad. On this occasion, young men and women look for a wife and a husband, while the village’s elders would discuss about the crops and the livestock. If you enjoy this type of peasant festivals, we strongly recommend you to visit one of these fair for a colourful and lively display of costumes, unparalleled traditional songs played at the tulnic (a type of alphorn), alert dances, hearty meals and strong drinks!

Food & Drinks
And since we’ve mentioned food, home-cooked food in the regions of Transylvania inhabited by ethnic minorities is something definitely to be tried out, especially for the Hungarian and German influences on the local cuisine. To “boast” with their traditional dishes, Hungarians in Praid, 70km north-east from Sighisoara, have even created the Festival of Sarmale, which takes place every year at the end of September or beginning of October.

Taking a tour of the central part of Transylvania in the autumn will surely smell like fully ripe grapes and will make you want to taste a glass (or two) of homemade wine. Apart from wine, the peasants use the grapes and other autumn fruits for producing variations of tuica, here called vinars, palinca, horinca or rachiu, with which they welcome their guests.

Music & dance
Some say alcohol starts a party, but music and dance make it merrier. So if you are in Transylvania, especially in one of the villages around Deva or Hunedoara, situated in a depression called Hateg Country, ask the villagers to show you how to dance hategana. Of all the Romanian folk dances, this is one of the quickest and most spectacular, so it is probably that you won’t be able to perfectly repeat the moves, but we guarantee you’ll have fun trying.

Apart from the Romanian traditional round dances, people in Transylvania and Banat and Crisana also prefer quick pair dances called invartite, where the men spin the women, often for minutes in a row. These are perfect occasions to notice the dancers’ folk costumes in their whole beauty. Also, the men jump, clamp their feet and kick their ankles a lot, making the dance even more lively and spectacular.

The music background is ensured by ensembles of musicians playing traditional instruments. Among these instruments, the “kicked” cello is an innovative one, being use only in the centre and south of Transylvania and in Banat.

Legends & Tales
Being such heterogeneous communities in terms of ethnic composition, in Transylvania and Banat have been created many legends about the coexistence, interaction and interdependence between Romanians, Saxons and Hungarians. One of them is related to the quick and lively style of folk dancing that they share. It is said that a Romanian, a Saxon and a Hungarian were sitting around the fire. As they were talking, a spark jumped from the fire directly on the boot of the Hungarian, who immediately started kicking his foot sideways, in the front and in the back, and this is how the Hungarian traditional folk dances were created. The spark then jumped on the boot of the Romanian, who started spinning, squatting and whistling, just as the men dance in this part of the country. He managed to get rid of the spark, which jumped on the boot of the Saxon. And as the Saxons are rather slow and remiss, he started to move slowly on his tiptoes, to keep the spark away from his sole, and this is how the waltz was created.

But while merry and welcoming, the rural societies have been (and to some extent still are) quite conservator in what concerns other aspects. Matrimony, for example, was seen as something sacred, and the belief that what God united cannot be separated by men was very widespread, especially in the Saxon communities. In this regards, the Saxon church in Biertan, 28km away from Sighisoara, included in one of its annexes a so called “divorce room”, where the Saxon couples who wanted to divorce were locked, having at their disposal one bed, one plate, one piece of bread and one cup. After 2 weeks in which they shared everything, almost all the couples got back together. Legends say that in 300 hundred years only one couple remained steadfast in its decision to divorce.

When exploring the countryside of these two regions, you will surely feel attracted by the friendliness and hospitality of all the ethnic groups. While maintaining the traditional ways of life of their inhabitants, the villages have also preserved a common sense of simplicity and naturalness that will make you feel at home.