October 26, 2012

Dracula aside, Transylvania is full of sights, soups to savor

As a culinary historian, I’ve been intrigued by Transylvania since 1985 and the release of “Paul Kovi’s Transylvanian Cuisine,” by the former owner and director of the Four Seasons in New York.

It wasn’t the occult that drew me to Transylvania. It was a cookbook.

As a culinary historian, I’ve been intrigued by Transylvania since 1985 and the release of “Paul Kovi’s Transylvanian Cuisine,” by the former owner and director of the Four Seasons in New York.

The cookbook is unusual not only for its history and folklore, poetry and sociology, but also for the cuisine of this melting pot in Central Europe, where Hungarians, Armenians, Saxon Germans, Romanians and Rroma make their home. Kovi had combed through 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century treatises and called on 10 of Transylvania’s best writers to help him evoke the bountiful table of this corner of Eastern Europe, which has been shrouded in mystery and superstition.

A part of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian empire for more than 1,000 years, Transylvania is a largely isolated portion of north-central Romania. The surrounding regions – Moldavia, Maramures, Wallachia and the Banat – were even more unknown and mystifying to me, but I planned to explore as much of this fabled land of mountains and castles as I could in my rental car.

I started in the historic city of Sibiu, which, like many places in Transylvania, is also called by its German name, Hermannstadt, and its Hungarian one, Nagyszeben. Bordered by the Carpathian Mountains to the south, Sibiu, with its multicultural history, modern accommodations, restaurants and abundance of UNESCO World Heritage sites, is made for visitors.

Sibiu’s architecturally fascinating old town, on two levels, seems self-possessed, as though it were still the capital of Transylvania, as it was for 100 years in the 18th century. For most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Habsburg emperors ruled in Transylvania, constructing, as they did in Vienna, grand public spaces and elaborate buildings meant to show the dynasty’s wealth and power. I’ve seen nothing as impressive as the city’s Piata Mare – the “large plaza” – in Bulgaria.

At the same time, the Saxons, a German-speaking group of northern Europeans who had settled in Transylvania in the 12th century and built hilltop villages with fortified churches, also maintained their presence in Transylvania. Among the baroque Habsburg architecture in Sibiu, medieval Saxon homes sport eye-shaped dormer windows that seemed to follow me everywhere.

There are plenty of shops, museums, churches and cafes to duck into, as well as other squares, each lined with structures from different eras.

Now that Romania is part of the European Union, the butchers and cheesemakers have been moved indoors to a sterile building outfitted with refrigerated cases filled with their wares. A young woman from the neighboring Saxon village of Rasinari, who spoke English, sold me some of her parents’ lovely fresh sheep’s milk cheese (her father was the shepherd, her mother the cheesemaker).

The 18 sheep-raising villages surrounding Sibiu – known as the Marginimea Sibiului – are remarkable for their preservation of the traditional crafts of weaving, woodcarving, icon painting, egg coloring and, naturally, cheesemaking. I drove to Rasinari first, where gaily painted roadside shrines adorn country roads and the town square.

This thought struck me particularly on the treacherous, awe-inspiring Transfagarasan Highway, which, at nearly 7,000 feet, is the second highest road in Europe, a two-lane blacktop that hugs mile-high canyons and took five years to build. Many consider it to be the best motorcycle route in the world; dozens passed me.

Somehow overcoming my fear of heights, and white-knuckled all the way, I managed to reach the summit. I was fortunate to have bright sun on the climb, but as soon as I reached the peak, chilling clouds moved in. A cluster of restaurants and roadside stands perched on the pinnacle. I walked into one of the restaurants and ordered restorative ciorba ardeleneasca, a traditional Transylvanian “sour” soup full of pork and potatoes. Chorbas are made sour by the addition of buttermilk, sour cream, lemon juice, vinegar or, as in this case, sauerkraut juice. My first of the legendary Transylvanian soups, it was delicious.

Face to face with a legend

En route to Sighisoara, a castle-topped 12th-century citadel infamously associated with the legend of Dracula, I sped through the Tarnave River Valley on the well-maintained, walnut-tree-lined Route 14. Outside the village of Brateiu, an odd collection of unfinished Rroma homes flanked the road, with striking displays of copper cauldrons, stills and trays for sale.

The Old Town of Sighisoara rises up over the city’s newer sections, which hug the Tarnave, in an astonishing display of Saxon architectural styles clinging to the rocky massif. I was mesmerized. Perhaps there is something to this Dracula tale, I thought, as I climbed narrow stairs banked here and there with covered walkways – protection, I would learn, from heavy snowfalls.

The city looks like the set of a horror film, with its fine restored homes and churches, castles and torture chambers. Nine of the citadel’s original 14 towers, built by the craftsmen guilds that maintained them, still stand.

Back down on the square, once the site of beheadings, the home of Vlad, whose son Vlad the Impaler was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” is marked by a plaque. The plaza is lined with terrace cafes and shops hawking tacky vampire souvenirs. A film crew was working with some vintage cars, and I could see why the tour buses line up in the summer.

250 acres of history

I’d unwittingly saved the best for last. We spent the entire last day at the appealing Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization, known as ASTRA. Just outside Sibiu on the edge of the Dumbrava Forest, it’s a 250-acre open-air museum that makes Colonial Williamsburg look like a tiny theme park. Begun in the early 1960s, it’s a re-creation of Romanian rural life that features 150 historical structures that have been moved to the museum grounds and restored.

It offers a peek into the world of hunters, fishermen, shepherds, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, weavers and potters. I felt like a kid again as I peered into the candlemaker’s workshop and the goatherd’s mountain hut.

The restaurant on the grounds is part of the museum, a village tavern from a region between Transylvania and Muntenia, famous for its plum brandy (tuica).

I’d been told to be sure to eat there. I thought of Paul Kovi when I ordered the cabbage cooked in bacon with the homemade sausages. They were grilled over an open fire by a cook who grimaced when I took her picture. After we ate, spicing our meals with fresh hot peppers served as garnish, I went back, without camera, and gave her the thumbs up.

She beamed.

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