Category Archives: traditions

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:

A unique tradition in Romania: the bathing of the Johns

If your name is John and you live in a small village near Sibiu, it’s very likely that you’ll get wet on January 7th. And, even if the water it’s freezing cold, no one is upset, on the contrary, everybody is happy and cheering. Actually, is an old tradition it the village of Talmacel, 20 km from Sibiu, where on Saint John’s Day, every person whose name is John, or derivations, is bathed on the small river who is flowing through the village. Well, not the whole body is immersed in the freezing water, just the tip of the boots. And after the ritualistic bathing, inspired by the facts of the Saint John the Baptist in the Bible, every one has to take a sip of “palinka” – a strong plum brandy that will heat your body instantly.

On St. John’s Day, preparations begin early in the morning, and the central points of the village are the households where the allegorical chariot and the horses are adorned. The chariot and the horses is adorned with fir tree branches, traditional carpets and tablecloths made by the women from the village. The decoration of the carriage takes a few hours and engages a large number of male and female participants.

The cortege in 2017

The Johns are dressed in the morning of the feast, putting on traditional costumes prepared in advance with great care, before going to the church. They also receive some incense bead, to protect them against the evil eye.

The Johns

At noon, after the religious service has ended, the colorful cortege starts from the household where the carriage has been adorned to the creek. At the creek, the whole community is gathering, and everybody tries to find a place as good as possible to view the ceremony. The first to be bathed is traditionally the priest of the village, followed by the mayor, the deputy mayor, then the lads and the girls whose is name John and then the remaining locals bearing the same name.

The priest is the first to be bathed
The priest is the first to be bathed

The bathing of the Johns is the same for all: the Johns are taken on the arms of two or three lads and are sank with their feet in the water of the stream. The operation is repeated two or three times, and to make the ceremony more engaging, the boys pretend to slip them in the water. After all the Johns have received their baptism, the boys, girls, locals and tourists head for the central point of the village: the square in front of the church. Here, the traditional dance takes place, according to the well-known order: “sârba”, “învârtita”, “haţegana”, “jiana” and “hora”.

Dancing after the bathing
Dancing after the bathing

A few things to do in Sibiu you won’t find in any guide book

Planning a visit to Sibiu is easy: there are so many sources of information that sometimes the biggest hassle is to know how to filter it. Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, National Geographic, Tripadvisor. All of these guide books are doing a great job in giving you an introduction in Sibiu most valuable touristic attractions. But what if you want something different, out of the beaten path? Here are my tips:

  1. See Sibiu from above. The easiest way is to climb the council Tower in the main Square of Sibiu. But if you want a wider view go to Gusterita Hill on the Eastern side of the city. For its position was used during the WWI by the German troops. Or, if you’re passionate about hiking, choose Paltinis to meet the mountains. There are several places from you can enjoy a breathtaking view of Sibiu from 1400 m. My favorite one is the observation point from the Oncesti peak, easily accessible with chairlift.

    Sibiu seen from Paltinis
    Sibiu seen from Paltinis
  2. If you’re on Sunday morning in Sibiu you have to act like a local. Go to the church, preferably the Orthodox Cathedral in Mitropoliei Street. Romanians are quite religious and on Sunday morning the churches are filled with worshipers. If you’re for the first time in an Orthodox country, participating at the Sunday Mass can be a very good introduction in the rites and culture of Eastern Christianity.

    Evening mass in the Orthodox Cathedral in Sibiu
  3. Also, for Sunday, don’t miss the flea market. You would be probably the only tourist there, but even though you don’t want to buy anything, it worth to check on the antiques part of the market, where you can find all kind of usable and unusable stuff, from coins to old toys or metallic tools. Also, while you’re there, you don’t want to miss the best “mici” in town. If you don’t know what mici are, well, mentioning that they are the most popular barbecue dish in Romania is enough?

    Flea Market Sibiu
  4. If you’re in Sibiu on Saturday morning, you must go to the Farmers Market near the Sporting Hall. Don’t have breakfast before, as you’ll find there every thing you need for breakfast, lunch or dinner: all kind of local cheese, sausages and cold meats, home make cookies, and fresh bread, greens, vegetables, honey, fruits, all from the villages around Sibiu. In 2018, Sibiu will be the European Gastronomical Region, and the Farmer’s Market will be one of the places where a lot of events related with the local cuisine will take place.

    Cheese section at the Farmers Market in Sibiu

This is not a Castle Tour

I have to confess that almost all of my tourists are wanting to visit the Bran Castle on their way to Brasov, from Sibiu. But the last excursion to Brasov was different, as my guests had already seen the famous Transylvanian Castle, also known as Dracula Castle. So, I tried to built an itinerary  with attractions less know by tourists, a little off the beaten track.

So, the tour was about people, about experiences, about local tradition and rural life. We visited an complex installation for processing the wool into fine fiber and in a same time a very efficient washing machine: the whirlpool ( valtoare in Romanian). The second stop was at a water mill, 150 years old, using the original flint stones to finely grind the cereals and obtain a high quality flour. Amazing traditions kept alive by faithful and hard working families, with a lot of sacrifice in the Communist time, and a lot of perseverance today.

Between the whirlpool and the mill  he had a picnic, on a shore of a river at the foothills of the Carpathians. Much better option than a lunch at a restaurant.