Sighisoara, the Medieval Festival and I


Sighisoara Medieval Festival 2010

Yes folks, the rumors ARE true. I, the King of Romania, was in the unbelievably gorgeous town of Sighisoara (siggy-shwarah) a few weeks ago for the annual medieval festival. And it is also true that I took part in the events as a very…. hmm, unique performer. More on that in a second ;)

I’ve always told visitors to this country (and even some Romanians) that if there is one place to visit in Romania it is Sighisoara and after my recent visit, I am even more emphatic about that. It is truly an amazing and wonderful place.

As a kid I used to love stories about dragons and swords and of course castles. And in various other parts of Europe I’ve seen a few quite spectacular castles and medieval fortresses and the like. What sets Sighisoara apart is that virtually the entire town is still medieval in aspect and appearance. It’s absolutely amazing – it’s like stepping into a time machine.

The ancient houses are not reconstructions or models, they’re the same real buildings from that long gone era, including the childhood home of Vlad Tepes aka the “Real Dracula”. The streets are narrow, winding and paved with cobblestones. Most of the city’s ancient battlements are still in place.

Sighisoara is an amazing town to visit all year round but during the medieval festival they take this genuinely ancient city and dress up the inhabitants to match, breathing life into the way things were. It wasn’t just the ladies dressed in costumes of yore (including the flowing gowns) and the sword and shield bearing knights, it was actually a question of a transformation of spirit.

I think one of the most moving experiences I had during the festival was a speech given by the local theater company’s director (whose name, sadly, I have forgotten) to the crowd, exhorting them to return to an age of chivalry, moral upright behavior and honesty and respect towards all people. I guess that the way I’m writing this makes it sounds cheesy in the summation but it was more than just an exercise in playing dress-up for him and his outstanding crew.

As an American I am used to the “Disney” approach to all things ancient – a sort of prettied-up re-enactment wherein a few historical costumes are donned and all the rest is overpriced snacks and gimmicky souvenirs and piped in music via modern speakers and wires.

Certainly there were more than a few touches of the modern world during the festival, including a large central stage with microphones but there were lots of genuine (or as near as could be done) activities going on, ranging from musicians playing medieval melodies on period instruments (including the famous lute), displays of swordcraft and other medieval instruments of war, horse processions and even dance.

I guess in far fewer words, there seems to be something truly magical about a medieval festival taking place in an actual medieval city with the “players” all residing there and breathing in that ancient spirit day in and day out versus a few modern folk who take a weekend off to go drive their minivan to a campground and juggle balls to the strains of New Age CDs.

Whatever the secret ingredient present that made this festival so memorable, I greatly enjoyed myself and I highly recommend all of you to visit (or re-visit) Sighisoara if you ever get a chance, medieval festival or not.

That being said:

The Bad: Almost everything going on is entirely in Romanian from the signage to the exhibitions, the language the performers were speaking, etc. If you don’t understand Romanian there’s a lot you’re going to miss out on and mostly all you’ll see is people dressed up in costumes and a lot of (admittedly beautiful) handicrafts being sold from stalls.

I definitely heard some American English being spoken by some of the visitors as well as a sprinkling of Hungarian and German (note: Sighisoara was largely a German city up until “modern” times so interestingly enough back in the real medieval period that would’ve been the language most people were speaking).

Also, the city of Sighisoara’s information office sold us a map for 4 lei (1 euro) even though it was stamped on the front “exemplar gratuit” (free). Nice!

The Good: The snacks and water (especially important because Saturday was blistering hot) was a little expensive inside the festival boundaries (essentially the top of the hill where the old city is) but not completely unreasonable. I saw entire trash cans filled to the brim with empty water bottles and I’m glad everyone got properly hydrated enough to stay healthy and avoid tragically unnecessary accidents just for the sake of making a larger profit.

There were always between three and five events going on simultaneously so there was always something happening, giving us a wide choice of options. Quite nice. Sometimes the schedules weren’t rigidly adhered to but there was never ever a lack of something to do or see.

Despite the fact that the city was jam-packed with tourists, there always seemed to be enough restaurants, bars, pizza joints and the like to handle the volume of people.

Unexpectedly Great: I wish I got their name but there was a two-man street theater group from Uruguay who did their act (almost entirely) in Spanish. Absolutely hilarious piece of comedic timing and improvisation and the two definitely earned the multiple rounds of applause and crowd donations.

Total Dud: A group of what was quite clearly 100% Americans, from the overfed faces, the wrinkled, oversized and clean but unkempt clothing to the complete lack of Romanian language skills performed an act several times billed as either a “juggling act” or a “medieval drama”.

It was nothing of the sort. The Americans were clearly fundamentalist, evangelical Christians who badly performed a tiny bit of juggling (dropping the pins multiple times) interlaced with long-winded speeches about how Jesus can do everything from remove stains from your clothing to giving an extra pep to your car’s motor. Well, something like that :P

Even the “drama” parts were of such low quality that it was abysmal even by elementary school standards. I think we honestly did a better piece of theater during my 5th grade play. I realize coming up with a “play” to engage people who largely don’t speak your language is hard but the Uruguayan duo did it spectacularly and these sullen-faced American fundies were a discredit even to their own purported mission.

Oh and let’s not forget the horrendous “singing”, the kind that infests a lot of “off-brand” American churches today, mostly wailing and going “woah woah” over a 80’s light rock beat with a simple chorus of one short sentence mentioning Jesus repeated several times. I saw a few Romanians back off in horror at the sheer volume of the sound system piping out this “singing”, which was quite amusing to me.

Getting to Sighisoara

There are no airports anywhere nearby except for in Sibiu, which is close but not that close. There are several high-speed trains running to Sighisoara though, especially coming from either Cluj or Bucharest. More information on trains can be found here (Plecari = Departure City, Destinatie = Destination City).

There are also a few minibus (minivan) lines running directly to Sighisoara from all large cities either in the south (Bucharest, etc) or from the rest of Transylvania (Brasov, Cluj, Sibiu, etc). The bus will be a little bit faster and cheaper.

Inside Sighisoara there are a number of taxi companies with differing rates – most of them run at 1,79 lei/km (roughly $1USD per mile) although we found one company charging only 1,3 lei/km so if you’re pinching your pennies, be sure to scan the rates listed on the front quarter panel of the vehicles before you get in (see my complete Taxi Guide for more information).

——–

But wait, what about my part? Ah yes, we cannot forget the most important thing! One of the items listed on the festival’s schedule was called “farse”, literally meaning “farces” in English but a perhaps more accurate translation would’ve been “improv theater”.

The amazing director of the Sighisoara theater company selected random people out of the crowd and then set up the basic gist of the story (which was quite medieval and involved a man buying silk for his wife to make a gown) and then had the crowd run wild with the microphone (in character). Quite hilarious.

One of the people picked out of the crowd was none other than yours truly. I have to say I wish I had a photograph of the director’s face when he found out I was a foreigner (and American to boot) who was speaking Romanian. I don’t quite think he’s ever had a non-native speaker up on stage before. After all, if you don’t speak Romanian you wouldn’t understand what was going on and so wouldn’t be attending. Quite funny.

I played my small part as best I could although much respect and admiration goes to the woman (also picked out of the crowd) who played the part of the lawyer’s wife. She just went completely over the top, improvising her role with great gusto and hilarious dialogue and the crowd was loving it. Her husband was filming the entire thing and had a gigantic grin on his face the entire time. It was clear that his movie of the event was going to be a cherished memory for them for some time to come :)

After the show a few people came up to me and congratulated me and so it all went down very well. I must admit I was a little nervous to be up there, having to both understand a heck of a lot of fast Romanian dialogue AND to participate in it myself but the director handled everything quite smoothly and I really had a lot of fun.

So there you go. If you’re ever in Romania, it’s definitely worth it to go visit Sighisoara and especially their medieval festival, held every summer. Unfortunately, at the moment the City of Sighisoara’s website is outdated and clumsily constructed so it can be a little difficult finding out when the festival will be held.

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On a personal note, I must say The Woman and I stayed in a rather disturbing “pension” (think “bed and breakfast” if you’re American although there was no breakfast). It was in a lovely rural setting just 3km from town and the owner had built a delightful gazebo, a water mill all in a gorgeous little garden setting. Unfortunately, he also had a bizarre fetish for capturing animals.

While his cats were free to roam around, one was severely malnourished and the other one clearly had mange. The fish in the little water pond were dying in increasing numbers every day, with a weird bloody aspect around their faces. Whatever was wrong with them, I do not know but even the malnourished cats wouldn’t touch the one dead fish I scooped out and put on the ground.

Far more disturbing though was a large wire cage which held both a gigantic hawk of some sort as well as an owl. The two birds constantly were hopping around, agitated and wanting to leave. Another wire cage held a number of ordinary pigeons although they seemed fairly content to be where they were.

The only animals I saw in good health in this little one-man zoo were two turtles in a small pond or basin. They eagerly and savagely snapped at anything in their vicinity and seemed to be thriving.

The good news (for my heart) was that I got a chance to meet some of the other guests in the place, including a large contingent from Dimbovita and they all told me they had the same idea we did – set those birds free.

23 Comments Add yours

  1. Pretty very good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have very enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I will be subscribing for the feed and I hope you write-up once again soon.

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    1. Klavdia says:

      Hey Mike I think the best thing to do is to really try and force yelrsouf to speak with as many people as possible. And this includes those in the hostels/hotels where you stay and people that you come across while wandering around. One good thing to do is jump on Couchsurfing.com and look for people in the destinations you’ll be visiting who are interested in meeting up for a coffee/drink. I do this myself and it’s a great way to interact with a local and enjoy an experience that you otherwise wouldn’t have if you were on your own. I can highly recommend this in order to help get you interacting with others again.At the same time, every trip is different and sometimes we just don’t feel’ it and we end up in a mood in which we just don’t want to interact with many people. This happens to me as well from time to time and usually, when it does occur, I stop what I’m doing, decide on a destination that I know would make me very happy (usually a beach!) and head there for a while in order to re-group and re-energize. After such a break, I’m typically ready to explore again, feeling much more sociable.

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  2. daianara says:

    You forgot the 4 star hotel pool. :D:D:D

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  3. Sam R. says:

    sweet :D pofta mare!

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  4. Sam R. says:

    Yes, w/r/t means “with regards to”. Sorry but I forget not everyone knows the same shorthand :P

    Finding work isn’t really all that hard, relatively speaking. The huge issue is that it is extremely difficult to “immigrate” to Romania and requires a metric ton of paperwork and government permissions. That amount of paperwork and stamps needed for an ordinary Romanian to work would boggle your mind. Not to mention that ordinary salaries are extremely low and are insufficient to cover renting an apartment.

    For more information on this, I recommend checking out the Romanian embassy’s website in your country and you can find out the current information there.

    That being said, opening your OWN business and being self-employed is about a thousand times easier and is definitely possible. The other realistic option is to work for a foreign company which has branch offices in Romania.

    Good luck with your studies and please come for a visit in the near future to see if you still like it here :D As for Shakira, no I’m afraid I haven’t seen that one.

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    1. Megan says:

      Ahhhh thank you very much for that! Tres helpful :)
      I most definitely will visit as soon as possible, I’m excited already. I made mamaliga (sorry for the lack of “A hats” there) the other day following your instructions from an earlier post and I must say, I liked it very much.

      I will retreat back into the shadows now, and continue to read your awesome blog until another opportuniry arises to make an equally awesome comment.

      Peace :D

      Like

  5. Sam R. says:

    Hey Megan, good to hear your enthusiasm :D I don’t know why the icons are a “sick face” but I’ll tweak it a little bit and see if I can’t get some more normal icons there.

    I must admit getting permission to work in Romania is a pretty difficult thing (unless you’re a citizen of course). LOT of paperwork in this country. Can I ask what your plans are w/r/t Romania exactly? Might be able to point you in the right direction.

    Distractia placuta cu limba aceasta :D Have fun with this language!

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    1. Megan says:

      Ohhh I had no idea! (it was difficult to get work) I just assumed it would be readily available which now, looking back, seems rather silly of me.

      I Googled w/r/t, which told me it means ‘with respect to’, so if that is in fact the case, I must say I’m not 100% yet. I won’t graduate until the end of 2012 so – relying on the world not ending – I’m aiming for 2013. What exact field I’m not entirely sure… rehab-type things, paediatric care, or learning disorders (like autism) is what I’m leaning towards.

      Area of Romania? Undecided. I mainly just want to spend several years there, if at all possible! :))

      P.S. Have you seen the Youtube video of that song which is a copy of Shakira’s “waka waka”? It’s called “kaka maka”, and it’s about the state of the economy at the mo. I managed to pick up a few words, but not entirely sure of the rest….

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    2. Pradeep says:

      Hi Earl, I have noticed this too the last colupe of years, and I think it’s sad. To me, traveling is at least as much about the human interaction as it is to visit places, see things, But what annoys me most, when you walk around in the common room and have a look what everyone is doing on their phone, tablet or pc, most of them will be playing games So I have a theory: unlike most people think, a lot of travelers (including myself) actually have an introvert personality. Being on the road forces us to get into conversations, which actually makes us feel better and more confident. Also, you are not often the new guy in the group. Since there are a lot of solo travelers, most of the time everyone is the new guy. But now technology gives us again a way to hide ourselves, it keeps us busy. Where in previous times we got into conversation because we were either lonely or bored like hell, now we have the opportunity to fall back on our tools.This is why I normally don’t bring a lot of technology, although I have to admit I start taking more and more things. But I’m very careful that I only use it for the necessities: upload photo’s, read mail, quick mail to mom, and that’s it.

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  6. Megan says:

    *oops, by “there” I mean Romania in general. Any city. Why is my little icon a sick face?!

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  7. Megan says:

    Wow! That sounds frickin amazing… I can’t wait to visit.
    I switched my Facebook into Romanian to help me learn, just by the way. Because I know you were totally dying to know.

    Is there much work for occupational therapists there? That you know of, I mean. Don’t know how ‘public knowledge’ that kinda thing is, but may as well ask while I’m here prattling on about myself.

    Like

    1. Shavel says:

      Hi Earl,I came across your site and this post just today. This post elcpeialsy grabbed my attention. I left my cubical job in July 2011 (my third attempt) to travel, grow and meet people and have found the goal increasingly more challenging. My first attempt was in 2004 backpacking through Europe. The way you describe the camaraderie in this article before so much technology was my first experience of extended travel and it had me hooked. I’ve since been trying to find that again, yet as of my latest trip I find myself feeling more isolated now then ever. It’s taking a tole on my soul. Any advice for someone who is finding them-self slipping more and more into being an introvert and would like to find the joy in life again of engaging people but no longer knows how? I don’t even know if long term travel really suites me anymore or if it ever did but I miss the interactions I had on my first trip years ago and realize that even if I choose to settle in somewhere I’ll still face the same issue of isolation if I don’t relearn (especially in today’s world) how to engage people again. Thanks ahead of time for anything you can suggest that might help!

      Like

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