Cities / Towns Visited: 69
Countries Visited: 19
Steps Taken Today: 13,041
Steps Taken Around the World:2,332,765
We awoke to another hot sunny day, and scurried downstairs to systematically eat our way through the buffet breakfast of the hotel, before heading out to explore. As we stepped out the back of the hotel, towards the old town, we were greeted with a most bizarre sight. Before us sat a square, fenced off arena, with a temporary grandstand set up to one side. Within the area rode a number of men on horseback, clearly practising for some kind of show which we could only imagine was to be occurring later. As we looked beyond the area I we saw that the nearby street with full of food stalls, as though we had found ourselves amidst a festival. As we looked up at the grand old building on the steep shelf of rock towering over our present position, all of our questions were suddenly answered, for there hung a giant banner for the towns annual Medieval Festival. Suddenly it made sense why it had proved so difficult to find accommodation on this very weekend. Sometimes your travels match up perfectly with things, even if you do not plan them as such, and this was one such example.
Excited by our new found situation we scurried of into the heart of the old town. We had a list of places we wanted to visit, but we figured we would stop at those things as we stumbled across them, while simultaneously seeing what this festival had to offer. As we made our way in, we passed a number of gorgeous birds of prey on display, sitting in a small shaded area, and rather sadly tethered to individual posts. From here we walked through the gauntlet of food stalls, an entire row of which was just a series of stalls all grilling a mountain of meat, from skewers to sausages, pork ribs to chicken, and everything in between. The smell was intoxicating, and we knew immediately that this would be the source of our dinner later today. In another stroke of luck, my brother and his friend would be arriving here in the evening, having sorted out their laptop debacle in Brașov, meaning we would be able to share this happy coincidence with them.
As we began our walk up the hill we found ourselves amongst a throng of people; in the centre were a number of costumed actors, one lady dressed as a condemned woman with a huge matted wig of hair, and a fake blood stained white dress; being whipped by a hooded executioner; and followed by a man dressed as a priest, and a large gathering of other women dressed in medieval gowns. They were leading her up the hill, as all of us onlookers followed. We couldn’t understand what they were saying, as it was all in Romanian, but the acting gave it away enough to know that she was being condemned as a witch. Throwing systematic city exploration to the wind, we followed this group onwards into the heart of the city. The scene came to a climax outside a church, where the charges against her were read out, and a farmer came in as a witness to give evidence of her witchcraft. By yet another stroke of luck we found ourselves standing behind a lady roughly translating the scene into English for a group of obviously bilingual Spanish tourists. From the snippets I could hear from her, the farmer was accusing her of bewitching his cows, and drinking their milk. He claimed to know this occurred because when the moon is full, apparently his cows are able to speak to him and they told him so. Unsurprisingly, after much emphatic yelling and arm flailing, the case was dismissed and the accused woman set free. I guess talking cows was less believable than a woman drinking milk. A truly amusing way to start our day, and a great way to get into the medieval mood.
At this point we decided it was time to get onto the exploration and thus beginning with the one nearest to us, we ventured over to the first of the numerous medieval watch towers built into the old walls which enclose this time capsule of a town. As we skirted our way along we passed by several more, even entering one which was displaying a selection of beautiful photos and paintings of Sighișoara by a local artist as part of the festival.
Eventually we came upon another of the destinations on our list; the Scholars Steps. This deceptively long covered wooden staircase runs up the steep rocky hill on one side of the town, up to the old schoolhouse, and the adequately named Church on the Hill. The tiresome trek upwards amongst the never ending influx of tourists was made significantly more pleasant by the sound of a couple of guys busking Smoke on the Water, as they perched on the steps midway up. Unfortunately on our arrival at the top, we were unable to visit the interior of the church, as there was a wedding in progress, however this did give us an opportunity to instead wander around the peaceful tree filled cemetery that looks down over the sprawl of the city which lays beyond the old walls.
Having caught our breath, it was time to head back down the steps once more, and continue on into the heart of the streets, lined with their brightly coloured buildings, and tiny craft stalls selling every kind of trinket. We passed by a rich yellow building which is reputed to be the birthplace of Vlad Dracul (Vlad the Impaler), although we decided to forgo paying to enter, as our research shows that there is little to see inside, and what is there isn’t original furniture or possessions, thus we settled for simply seeing the exterior.
At this point we had reached the main square, and the location of the beautiful old clock tower which stands watchfully to one side. Walking past a medieval band set up with lute, bagpipes, fiddle, and a drum, we stepped inside the tower and bought our tickets to ascend. The various rooms on the way up display an array of medieval artifacts from the town, from old chests and furniture, to a large array of old apothecary jars; a scale model of the old town, and a close up view of the painted wooden statues that represent the days of the week and were used to tell the townsfolk of yesteryear what day it was. Finally we reached the top and, although squished in with the other tourists, we were treated to a breathtaking view of the festivities and red brick roofs below. The sound of the band’s medieval tunes joyfully filled the air, and as we looked down, we spied a group of costumed ladies dancing in formation just beside them. The whole scene was so entertaining that we lingered for a good quarter of an hour just enjoying the scene on this beautiful day.
Eventually we wandered back down to earth, and headed across the square to the weapons museum, located in another of the towns old defensive towers, which was included with the clock tower ticket. The space is small, but the three rooms house an interesting little collection of medieval weapons, and old guns from times past. Our last stop for the day was down under the tower; the Torture Room Museum. This cheap thrill consists of one singular room, which used to be the town prison, and it’s bleak enclosed space houses a couple of replica torture devices, like the rack, as well as a noose, and some information and pictures of torture methods from the middle ages. The most interesting part of the visit is the fact that there had been a fire in the tower hundreds of years ago, and the entire vaulted stone ceiling is still charred and blackened as a result, adding to the chilling feel of it all.
With all of the sights ticked off of our list, we ventured back into the square. It, and the street parallel to it, seemed to be the beating heart of the festival, with stalls of men dressed as knights displaying armour and weapons which were free to be held, and wielded for perfectly posed photos. Just down the hill there was also a small area set up for those who wished to try their hand at archery. It all looked like a hoot, but we decided to leave the fun for the next day when we could share it with my brother and his friend. We’d just scope out the options for now.
With a little time to kill we went back to the hotel to relax, before we headed, one at a time, to the hotels spa to get a massage, which we had booked in yesterday, as they had a deal on for cheap massages. Now in hindsight the cheap price, and the general disinterest of the ladies working at the front desk should have warned of what we were to receive. That being the strangest and least professional massage I’ve ever had. We weren’t even with the lady who’d met with us yesterday and confirmed our booking, instead it was a rather rotund old lady who spoke almost no English and waddled in with a shopping bag. Apparently the other lady had called in sick, and it almost felt like they grabbed a random off the street instead. She asked me to get undressed and lay on the table. All pretty standard so far, except that she didn’t leave the room while I changed, she just stood in the corner, back turned,and opened the bottle of coca cola she’d bought with her and drank some while she waited. I lay down and was not covered by a towel as is usual, and she squirted oil noisily from the almost empty pump pack onto her hands. Made all the more noisy by the fact that there was no calming music, or anything for that matter, to cut the silence. Although we’d booked aromatherapy massages it looked as though we were just going to be treated with plain scentless bulk pack oil they have on hand. As she began it became glaringly obvious that she had no actual training as a masseuse, and made almost no difference to the plethora of knots which reside in my shoulders. It was more just a collection of random movements, interspersed with tapping and pinching. When it came time to roll over, there was still no towel involved and I was left exposed as she strangely decided that stomach massages are a thing. It finished with me being asked to sit up as she massaged my arms. I must say I left there ever so confused, and in no way more relaxed than I went in. Oh the strange happenings of travel that make for bizarre stories. The only saving grace is that it was cheap, but I must say I was surprised with the entire operation given that we were staying at a Hilton partnered hotel, and even more surprised that I received no response from the Hilton head office when I emailed through my complaint. I wasn’t going to let it spoil my visit though so i continued on with my day.
My brother was apparently in town by this point, but was going to shower and settle into the hostel they had managed to find on the outskirts, probably one of the only places with space this weekend. With that in mind, and with us being peckish, we ventured back into the hubbub of the festival to indulge in a little of the mountains of grilled meat while we waited for them. A couple of pork ribs, and a chicken skewer later, and we went over to the arena to watch what the men had been practising for. With the main man dressed in the robes of a hero, and another man on foot dressed in a strange rabbit costume, it soon became clear that this was most likely some old Romanian folk tale being played out. The entire display was made doubly as impressive by the fact that the main rider controlled the horse not with a full set of reins but rather just a thin rope draped gently around the horses neck. The show eventually culminated in the hero fighting a collection of other men on horseback dressed in fantastical outfits and wearing bizarre masks which I’m going to guess were supposed to be some kind of collection of gouls or demons. It was all very amusing, even if we couldn’t understand a word of the story the rabbit figure was telling.
It was midway through this that my brother and his friend arrived, and we watched the conclusion of the show before scurrying back to the food stands to delight them with the wonders of all we had seen over mounds of meat. It was all pretty good, even if we couldn’t quite put our finger on what meat the sausages were made from, and we regaled them with what we wanted to show them tomorrow. We definitely overestimated our hunger at this point, and I was sad to have to throw our leftovers away, with nowhere in our room to refrigerate the remains for later. I’ve always struggled with disposing of perfectly good food, especially when there are so many in the world who go to bed hungry, and it tore at my heart to waste it, but I had eaten what I could, to the point of barely being able to move.
By now the sun had gone down and through the crowds, over towards the arena, we could see fire. Curious, we waddled over to find out what was going on. We were met with a scene that looked very much like some sort of satanic fire twirling ritual being played out to metal music. I can’t say it seemed very medieval, but it was certainly mesmerising to watch these somewhat goth people dressed in all black with body paint on, throwing, twirling, and spitting fire. It was a rather climactic ending to the day, and we parted ways after this, agreeing to meet in the foyer of our hotel the next day, for another half day of medieval frivolities before bidding them farewell once more and heading on to our next destination.
As I lay in bed, full of good food, and good feelings, it was not hard to imagine what this town had been like in the middle ages. Like many old towns in these far reaches of Europe, they appear very much as they would have done. Their walls and towers still stand, and their buildings remain largely unchanged. A Ferrari on the streets here would seem more out of place than the trial of a witch, or a sword wielding knight on horseback. We were so lucky to have stumbled upon the towns biggest event for the year entirely by accident, but in doing so we were able to experience the town in all of its glory; we were allowed to bask in its history alongside those to whom the history belongs. It is these kinds of cultural experiences which add immeasurable joy and education to travelling, they are the moments we will remember most fondly about our time exploring the world, and they make for the best stories. For those of you who take the time to wander this big beautiful planet we live on, I beseech you to go forth and experience other cultures, immerse yourself in their way of life, taste their unique cuisines, learn their histories, and be a part of their present. If only for a day, let their story become part of yours.