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How Romanians are celebrating winter holidays

The title of this blog post sounds like a google search query. And the answer to the query is as genuine it can be, as it’s the way we ( me, my friends and family) are celebrating winter holidays.

For one part of my family, winter holidays start with preparation. Namely, 40 days before Christmas, with the fasting. Fasting means switching to a vegan diet, but not only this. It also means trying to be a better person, to forgive and forget. For the rest, winter holidays start on November 30th, when we celebrate St. Andrew’s day. Is not that much a religious holiday, but as Saint Andrew is considered to be the Patron Saint of Romania, is also a non-working day. And it’s just before the National Day of Romania, December 1st ( Unification Day). 2 Days in a row without the need to go to work, that’s a good way to start celebrating winter. And, if it’s the weekend is close to these 2 days, here’s how we got ourselves a mini vacation. Tip for this day: try not to stay away from the main touristic attractions ( Prahova Valley for example, as you may spend half of your vacation stuck in traffic).

Then the winter celebrations are continuing with Saint Nicholas Day. The gifts frenzy starts with this day ( December 6th). Normally only the kids are receiving gifts on this day, usually sweets left during the night by the Saint-Nicholas ( aka Mos Nicolae = Old Man Nicholas) in their boots. So, in the evening before, the kids are polishing all their boots, hoping to impress “Mos Nicolae” to bring them as many gifts as possible. There is also a risk in all of this. The kids who didn’t behave well through all year will receive nothing but a stick. And usually, this is not going to happen, as every one of them was a good boy ( or girl) and the sticks are only for the adults.

kids preparing for Saint Nicholas
kids preparing for Saint Nicholas

In the countryside of Romania, a few days before Christmas ( usually on December 20 – Saint Ignat Day) people are starting the preparation of the Christmas Dinner by slaughtering the pig. If they are farmers the pig is from their own farm, if not, it is bought from the pig farmers in the area. It’s needed to do this in advance in order to give time the bacon, sausages and other pork goodies to mature and be ready to be eaten at Christmas. Every respectable man and women in the Romanian villages has to be also a skilled butcher, so every piece of the pork is transformed in mouth-watering delicacies.  Christmas dinner is considered incomplete without the carnati – homemade sausages, sunca or slana- bacon, jumari- cracklings, caltabos – blood sausage, toba – a dish made from pork skin, intestines, meat and spices boiled together, and then stuffed in the pig stomach. Is not a Christmas dish, but it is worth mentioning: “carne si carnati la garnita” –  a dish which is prepared in winter for the summer. If we want to be fancy we can call it pork confit, and it actually is a sort of it, but the Romanians will not call it this way, for the sake of God’s name. Basically is smoked pork chunks and sausages fried in lard at a small fire for at least an hour, put in jars or small buckets, all together with the lard. Is an easy way to preserve the meat, as it can last until the next summer if stored in a cool dry place. From all the pork dishes this is my favourite one.

Home made sausages and bacon
Homemade sausages and bacon

Christmas carols are an inherent accessory to winter holidays. In the countryside, it has mostly kept its traditional charm, but in the cities, it became a seasonal business, omnipresent on the shopping malls, streets or ar radio. In the rural part of Romania, the carolers will announce the Jesus birth a few days before and during Christmas time, and they will be rewarded with apples, walnuts and “covrigi”- the Romanian version of the pretzel.

Christmas carolers in Maramures
Christmas carolers in Maramures

Christmas in Romania is a family celebration, and normally on this day or on the eve, the whole family reunites together for the festive dinner, exchanging gifts and smiles. Besides the pork dishes presented before, for this special occasion, 2 other dishes are always present: sarmale – cabbage rolls stuffed with a mixture of minced meat and rice, and “salata de boeuf” – or the Russian salad made from chopped boiled potatoes, carrots, green peas, meat, pickled cucumbers and peppers, all mixed together with mayonnaise. For dessert, my mother always bakes the “cozonac” –  a type of sweet bread, with cocoa, walnut, raisins or Turkish delight filling.

Chistmas Dinner
Chistmas Dinner

Until New Year’s Eve party, the body has some time to recover from the heavy Christmas feast. New Year’s Eve party is celebrated among friends, either at someone’s home ( the old school or the cheapest way) or at a fancy restaurant or hotel. Like everywhere in the world, the passing between the years is marked with a glass of champagne and the fireworks show. The party last until the early morning, and usually continues the next day ( or days). We have also for this occasion specific carols, like “Sorcova”, “Plugusorul” or “Capra”. In some parts of Romania, the carolers are dressed in hideous costumes or in bear’s skin with bells, in an attempt to keep the evil spirits away or to bring good luck and fortune for the house they are visiting. It worth mentioning that the carols who are marking the passage of the years are not from a Christian origin, and they may be from a pagan origin, appearing in this land before Christianity.

The Bear's Dance
The Bear’s Dance

The winter holidays are ending in January the 7th, on Saint John’s day, preceded by the Epiphany, on the 6th, where the Orthodox priests are preparing and giving to the worshipers the Holly Water (agheasma) which is believed to have curatives and protective properties, if drunk in the morning, before eating. On the Epiphany’s day, in some parts of Romania, a cross is thrown by the priest in a freezing river, and a group or young men is swimming to retrieve it. It is believed that the one who returns back to shore with the cross will be absolved of all sins and will have good luck for the entire year.

The Epiphany in Sibiu
The Epiphany in Sibiu

For our guest who will want to have a first-hand winter experience in Romania, we can suggest checking the options of our Transylvanian Winter Tour. It can be a longer trip, for a thorough authentic experience, or a shorter one,  with only the highlights.

 

 

Discovering Transylvania markets and fairs

If you are a foreign tourist who wants to feel the beat of a country, I think you need to try as many experiences that will bring you closer to the daily life of the locals. You can look for accommodation in family owned guesthouses, search for restaurants popular among locals, but unknown to the outsiders, you can explore the remote villages off the beaten paths or you can visit the local markets, flea markets or fairs. Or you can hire a private guide who will introduce you to all of this and facilitate the interaction with the locals.

Today, I guided 2 guests from China who wanted to see some old castles, traditional villages and nice nature view. Difficult? Not really. 🙂 The area around Sibiu gives you large variety of possible destinations for tours. So I just adjusted the Corvin Castle Tour and added some sights that are usually part of “The villages tour”. So we started early in the morning, with a visit to the villages from Marginimea Sibiului. And because it was Saturday, we were able to explore the weekly market of Rasinari, the largest village from the area.

We arrived there at 8 am and the area on the central square and around the church was already very animated.

One of the narrow cobbled streets near the church was the place of the small flea market: old and rusty metal tools, second-hand clothes and antiquities.

The flea market section of the weekly fair in Rasinari
The flea market section of the weekly fair in Rasinari

The usual market place in the main square was occupied whit stalls selling local cheese (Marginimea is the capital of cheese in Romania), meat cuts (sheep and pork), vegetables and fruits. The type of cheese seen below is obtained from sheep milk, it is usually matured in sheep stomach or sheep skin, it has a strong flavour and slightly soft and crumbly texture. It is a perfect match to polenta.

Sheperds selling cheese
Shepherds selling cheese

The street near the river was the place of the cereal merchants (mostly corn, but also wheat or sunflower seeds). It was interesting to see that the measurement unit for cereals wasn’t the kilogram, but an ancient type of wooden bucket of around 20 liters in volume.

Unit of measurement for cereals
Unit of measurement for cereals

My guest perfectly matched the decor. Dressed in a shirt with Romanian traditional motifs, posing in front of the gate of a house in the village:

Transylvania: a guided tour

I’m always wondering how many days you need to see Transylvania. The answer is as simple as it is complicated: as many as you need or as many you as have. Two days tour is possible too short, 7 days can be too long. For this reason I designed a tour that gives to the tourist interested to see the essential places of Transylvania in 4 days: http://sibiutourguide.com/complete-transylvania-tour-private-guide.html

The tour can start in Bucharest, but the optimal starting point is Sibiu, due to its location in the heart of Transylvania (and the local airport has very good connections with Munich, London or Vienna). The hub for exploring Transylvania can can be Sibiu or Brasov, as from those cities is easy to reach the most popular touristic attractions of this part of Romania. And the charming set of the medieval old towns of Sibiu and Brasov is also an important element to take into account when the travel plans are made. If you decide to start in Bucharest, you have to take into consideration the option to finish the tour in Sibiu or Cluj, so you can save half a day that you would otherwise lose on the road back to the capital of the Romania.

So, the introduction being made, what are the places not to be missed when visiting Transylvania? First the castles: Bram Stoker’s Dracula made Transylvania a top destination on the touristic map of the world, so the castles are coming first on the list. The best known is Bran Castle, due to it’s links with Dracula, but the truth is that Dracula never lived there, as Dracula is a fictional character! But there is another castle, less known as Bran Castle, however much more impressing and important: the Corvin (Hunedoara) Castle. You will need two days to visit the 2 castes, and the best place to do this is from Sibiu, located at almost equal distance between them. Number 3 on the list is Peles, not because is less important, but because, if you have seen Bran and Corvin, you will not consider Peles a castle. In my views, Peles is a palace, and in term of architectural richness, elegance, originality, history, preservation and background scenery is the first touristic attraction of Romania. And, if we want to be very strict, Peles is not in Transylvania, but is just a few kilometers south from the former border with Wallachia.

Hunedoara Castle
Corvin Castle

Then, there are the cities. I mentioned before Sibiu and Brasov: vibrant cultural cities, with romantic squares and rich history in their CV. We have to add to the list Sighisoara, a charming medieval town, listed on the UNESCO World heritage list, which has preserved basically untouched its medieval walls and defense towers. Add to this the pastel houses and the cobbled streets and you have the perfect recipe for enchantment. I usually visit Sighisoara, when I’m on my way to Sibiu from Brasov or vice versa. I don’t recommend to spend a night there, if you are in a hurry as 2 or 3 hours can be enough to explore the citadel. If you are on extended visit to Transylvania, you can add to the list Alba Iulia ( due its extremely important significance in Romanian history and the Vauban fortress) and Cluj ( the largest city in Transylvania).

Sibiu
Sibiu

The fortified churches: an unique architectural phenomenon that appeared due the geographical and historical circumstances of Transylvania in 15th-16th century. There are around 150 villages with fortified churches, spread around Transylvania, and 7 of them are listed on UNESCO World Heritage list. I will not recommend to see all of them, if you aren’t an architecture and medieval enthusiast, but I strongly recommend to see at least Prejmer, Biertan or Viscri. All of them are near Brasov, Sighisoara and Sibiu, so is not difficult to put them on the travel map.

Biertan
Biertan

The landscape: mountains, countless flock of sheep, horse driven carriages, rolling hills, remote villages lost in the past, lofty fortresses, this is Transylvania! A must do experience is to drive on Transfagarasan, the mountain road that connects Transylvania with Walachia, over the Carpathians mountains. In summer time, Transfagarasan can be an alternative to drive to Bucharest, if the plan is to leave Romania from the capital city.

Transfagarasan south side