Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2009/12 posted by hidden europe on

Spring is slow in coming to the mountains of the Székely region. Altitude and rugged terrain conspire to make the winter snow linger longer than in many other parts of Romania. But now there is blossom aplenty and geraniums are reappearing on balconies in every village. Blue houses, hilltop chapels and a vibrant folk culture combine to make this one of the most appealing areas of Romania.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Spring is slow in coming to the mountains of the Székely region. Altitude and rugged terrain conspire to make the winter snow linger longer than in many other parts of Romania. But now there is blossom aplenty and geraniums are reappearing on balconies in every village. Blue houses, hilltop chapels and a vibrant folk culture combine to make this one of the most appealing areas of Romania. There are distinctive wooden fences, heaps of dovecotes and intricate wooden gateways. Stop off in villages like Corund, a place most well known for its pottery, and you do not really hear a lot of Romanian. For these valleys around the Harghita mountains are home to the Székely minority.

If you remember the Dracula story, you may recall that Bram Stoker's vampire count claims to be Székely. "We Székelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races," asserts the count. So just when you thought that Count Dracula was definitely Romanian (or possibly Transylvanian), now we find he is something quite other: Székely. Bram Stoker and his vampire would have us believe that the Székely people are the result of Scythian witches mating with devils, augmented by the genes of marauding tribes from Iceland.

Cast round the pottery stalls in Corund today, piled high with cobalt-blue and green ceramics, and you will not find any Székelys claiming Icelandic ancestry. For in fact these folk originate from Hungary, and are one of the many pockets of Hungarian settlement left stranded in foreign lands after the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. The Székelys are the largest Hungarian minority in modern Romania - with over half a million Székelys living in Romania's eastern Carpathian region.

The locals in Corund laugh at the tale of Dracula's Icelandic ancestry, but are quick to remind visitors that it was Székelys who kept the peace in mediaeval Transylvania. "We really are the Huns," says a women selling pottery, referring to the pastoral nomads who ran rampage through Europe in the late fourth century. Whether that really is true is quite another matter, but it is a good tale, and one that is widely mentioned in Székely villages.

In Bram Stoker's novel, the adventurous Jonathan Harker sets out from Bistrita on the final stage of his journey to Dracula's castle on the eve of St Georges Day, a night on which (if Székely stories are to be believed) the powers of evil ride rampant over the entire land. It is an intriguing rendering of a familiar tale, inviting us to equate St George's dragon with Satan. Whatever, just remember that today is St George's Eve and if you are out late tonight exploring the mountains of Transylvania, you would do well to take extra care. It is a night for numinous encounters.

In the next issue of our e-brief, which will be published next week, we shall preview the May/June 2009 issue of hidden europe. It includes features from the Basque Pyrenees, the Croatian coast, the Danish city of Roskilde and from a German spa town that was until 1990 divided by a wall, keeping apart its German and Russian inhabitants.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.