A Tour of the Wallachia and Dobrogea Regions
With a different historical development than the other parts of Romania, Wallachia has grown as a contrastive region, with Bucharest, the country’s capital, as a bustling aggregation of business, trade, tourism and nightlife in its centre and ancestral villages soaked in tradition in the rural areas. And while in some parts of the region many folk customs were lost, in others they bloomed and became pillars of traditions in the area. True bastions of Orthodoxy can be found in churches such as those from Wallachia’s highlands (the northern part). The churches and monasteries from Horezu, Cozia, Tismana and Curtea de Arges, the first two of which built in the distinctive Romanian brancovenesc style, become pilgrimage centres during the major religious feasts. The peasant life in Wallachia largely follows the religious calendar, but also pagan rites which often overlap with canonical feasts.
Festivals – Customs and Traditions
The Epiphany (Boboteaza), taking place on January 6th, gathers large crowds at the church for a ceremony during which water is blessed (agheasma) and given to worshipers for alleged medicinal purposes. In some areas in Wallachia and even in Dobrogea region, the church service is followed by folk feasts that include folk music and dance performances, tasty food and lively atmosphere.
Another occasion on which religion combines with magic is the Whitsun (Rusalii), when groups of masked dancers called Calusari go from house to house, performing their dance, in order to protect people from iele (feminine mythical creatures with magical powers and seductive skills) and diseases, to cure their illnesses and bless them with children and rich crops. Special types of dances and performances from Calusari are held in the villages around Slatina and Caracal (towns situated 50 km east of Craiova), where this custom seems to have been started hundreds of years ago.
After the winter and spring traditions, summer brings the biggest fair in Wallachia, in Polovragi, at the foot of the Southern Carpathians. Around July 20th, when Orthodox celebrate Saint Elijah (Sfantul Ilie), thousands of tourists come to Nedeia de la Polovragi, a fair spread on 7 hectares, which includes an animal fair for stock breeders and a local goods fair, where potters, wood carvers and creators of folk costumes across the country come to display their work. The festival ends with a parade of pastoral costumes, songs and dances and a horse parade.
Crafts & Occupations
While southern Wallachia is mainly comprised of agricultural land, the northern areas are famous for other crafts and traditional occupations. The village of Horezu, for example, is an old centre of ethnography and crafts and the best known place in the country for producing pottery. It is famous especially for the plates richly decorated with geometric, vegetal and anthropomorphic motifs, such as the traditional Horezu rooster. This has given the name of the biggest event in the area, the Cocosul de Horezu pottery fair, which takes place on the first Sunday of June. While in the past years this folk fair has become increasingly commercial, we recommend you to visit Horezu in different times of the year and enjoy the hospitality of the locals, who will be more than happy to invite you in their workshops and even allow you to try to work at the potter’s wheel.
If you are in the area, take a short trip to Maldarasti, 4 km south of Horezu, to visit the two 18th century cule (tower houses). These fortified dwellings, combining elements of peasant, civil and military architecture, used to offer protection against the Turkish troops’ raids. An 1802 cula can also be seen in the Bujoreni open-air museum, situated 12 km north of Calimanesti – Caciulata, which recreates peasant buildings representative for the region’s architecture, such as houses, inns and village schools.
Heading south, we leave the potters’ regions and head to the colourful area where the so-called Wallachian rugs are present in every peasant’s house. Made from wool, painted in vivid colours and decorated with nature-inspired motifs, the rugs and carpets are manually woven on a loom and given by parents to their daughters as their wedding dowry. If you visit the town of Bechet or the village of Giurgita, where women artisans in handmade rug weaving can be found, try to make a small rug yourself (and not to lose your patience on the way)!
Continuing your tour of Wallachia’s countryside to the west, you will reach the beautiful area of the Danube’s Cauldrons. In the picturesque villages lined along the Danube’s shore you will note the special atmosphere created by the cohabitation of numerous ethnic communities: Romanians, Serbians, Czechs and Bulgarians. While accommodating in one of the cosy pensions in Dubova or Svinita, you will surely taste, apart from Romanian traditional cuisine, dishes with Serbian or Bulgarian influence.
Situated in the continuation of Wallachia and separated by it by the Danube, Dobrogea shows little similarities and connections to any other region of Romania. And if we dig deeper into the lifestyles of the villagers in the northern and southern parts of Dobrogea, we will see that even those do not have much in common.
To the north you will discover traditional fishermen villages scattered on grinduri, higher grounds among the water channels that create the Danube Delta. The houses, actually cottages made from reed and mud, are lined along the Danube’s banks, so that the villagers can get quick access to the water, which is their primary source of food, transportation and income. Though the local people also practice small-scale agriculture, hunting, beekeeping and reed-weaving, it is fishing and boating that ensures their survival. In the Delta, every household has at least one boat. To move from one village to another or to explore the side channels, ask a local to give you a boat ride, but be prepared for a slow journey, since oar boats are more common and less expensive than motor boats.
No matter what area of the Delta you are exploring, you will encounter welcoming peasants, ready to accommodate you if you don’t find a hotel (in the towns of Tulcea or Sulina) or a pension. Though it is unlikely to find here any tourist facilities, you will be able to try out authentic – and delicious – fish dishes, as well as the fine wine from the Niculitel wine-growing region.
In the south of Dobrogea, the occupations of the peasants shift more towards agriculture, especially raising sheep and goats, growing vegetables, pomology and viticulture. The vineyards from the Murfatlar area are now exploited by the Murfatlar winery producing world-renowned wines. If you are in Constanta in October, don’t miss the Day of the Harvest and of the Dobrogea Wine (Sărbătoarea Recoltei şi Vinului Dobrogean), where agricultural producers, farmers and craftsmen gather to display and sell their products.
If your boatman has blond hair, blue eyes and a Russian accent, it is likely to have come across a lipovean. This Slavic minority, once inhabiting almost the entire populated regions of the Delta, can be found nowadays in a small number of communities in the Danube Delta and a bit south, on the shore of Lake Razim. The lipoveni are adepts of the old-rite Orthodox religion and celebrate Christmas on January 6th. This is a great occasion to visit the area and enjoy the traditional celebrations, but also to admire the brightly coloured folk costumes and vividly painted thatched cottages. Apart from lipoveni and Romanians, the Delta also hosts important communities of Ukrainians (in Letea) and Moldavians (in C. A. Rosetti). If you want to find out more about the varied groups inhabiting the region (the above-mentioned ones, but also groups of Turks, Tatars, Armenians, Jews, Italians, Germans, Hungarians, Greeks and Romani), visit the Museum of Ethnography and Folk Art in Tulcea, the Museum of Oriental Art in Babadag or the Ethnographic Museum in Jurilovca.
Trying to squeeze in a nutshell all the customs and traditions, religious feasts and pagan celebrations, traditional crafts and occupations, folk costumes, music, dances and food – in a word all the characteristics – of the Romanian countryside is, as we say, trying to “get drunk on cold water”. You will not find any two places alike, but you will, at every step, find hospitable people, always ready to open the door of their house for you and make you grasp – far better than how we have managed to explain here – the authentic atmosphere of the Romanian countryside.