(This film is a complement to our last essay from the Transfagarasan Highway in Transylvania, a route made famous by the UK’s Top Gear. Stax shot the driving footage (GoPro Hero Black 3 and Canon 60D) and Beej shot much of the scenery with his trusty Lumix GH2. Edited by Stax, who found very cool music by Brooklyn/San Diego duo The Fucked Up Beat and Brooklyn/Los Angeles duo High Places (both used via the Free Music Archive fair use license and attributed accordingly). The video was fun to put together and made the (very) cold trip worth it. Watch below and if you like it, Subscribe to our Youtube channel to get all our new videos!
Story by BEEJ.
Photos by STAX.
Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu pushed through construction of the Transfagarasan Highway in 1970. By all accounts the construction was hellishly difficult and brutal. Legend said he was spooked by the Soviet invasion of the former Czechoslovakia and wanted to build a military route to head off any similar invasion by his “comrades” in Russia.
But more likely, Ceausescu wanted to add the conquering of an incredibly rugged mountain range in the independent region of Transylvania – an area often resistant to his 20-year autocracy – to his list of “achievements”.
The country can point to the road as a success in at least one way: it brings thousands of motorheads from all around the world every year to Transilvania to race along the its wacky curves and hair-raising cliffside tunnels.
The road calls adventure freaks like the Sirens called Odysseus (Stax and Beej would jointly be Odysseus in this scenario. And Carla and Megs, two adventurous Australian girls from the hostel in Sibiu, would be our trusty crewmates. Don’t worry, no one drowned. But at one point Beej did have be lashed to the hood.)
We took a driving break for Megs and Carla to say hello to a wandering Romanian sheepdog on the side of the road, probably on a break from guarding his flock. These sheepdogs are massive and resemble small bears (I thought it was a Romanian brown bear from a distance).
Our ascent of the Fagaras pass ended at the summit of the road, Lake Balea (2046 meters or 6712 feet).
At the lakeside we froze in high winds tinged with ice and just to warm our hands up, scarfed down hot -off-the-fire balmos or mamaliga (not really sure which – there are tons of iterations of these traditional corn cakes in Romania).
The balmos were crazy filling – thick flame-roasted corn cakes, much like gooey polenta, with mountains of sour pasty sheep cheese pooled inside. The cheese was so strong, I could barely finish the thing.
Along the way down we spied the towers of Poenari Citadel clinging to a rocky cliff high above the road. In this citadel in the 16th century, the real-life inspiration for Dracula (Prince Vlad Tepes, who ruled the South) actually lived for a time.
Now it’s a spectacularly crumbling ruin you can climb up to. Unfortunately due to time and being cold and one of our car-mates being sick with a migraine, we couldn’t hike to the top. Next time, Vlad Dracul. Next time!
After a windy descent through autumn forests and across glacial streams, we reluctantly parted ways with the Transfagarasan Highway at the massive dam on Lake Vidraru – an appropriately scenic send-off to one of the most transcendent stretches of road I’ve ever driven.
Continued from Part II:
After we attended the practice wedding in Oncesti, we sat down over coffee with our unofficial fixer, Bud.
Bud told us there would be a traditional wedding in the village of Budesti the next weekend, and that he would even be bringing Japanese tourists there to catch the festivities. (Japanese tourism in this area is big.)
So, just days before our rental car was due in Cluj-Napoca, we found ourselves at an elementary school in Budesti that doubled as a cultural museum, searching for a woman named Maria, the principal there, who we’d been told could point us to possible translators. We battled through hordes of wild little Romanian kids to get to her office (the risks we take for this job, the derring-do!)
We ended up recording a long interview with Adrian, a teacher at the school, and his father, Petru. Adrian explained a lot of the history and culture behind wedding traditions, while Petru shared tales of weddings 30 years before, during the communist era.
Problem is, nobody in Budesti seemed to know about any wedding happening that weekend. And we talked to A LOT of people from Budesti – teachers at the school, shop owners, church attendants, and the principal Maria herself.
Nonetheless, with hope in our hearts and a Korean hostelmate, Hyoshin, in tow, we showed up last-ditch on the appointed morning and asked around all the churches. No wedding today.
We were a bit crushed, as was Hyoshin, who’d wanted to experience a wedding before she went off to Moldova.
We decided to salvage our last day in Budesti anyway and check out the interior of the1 6th century wooden church. The church attendant reconfirmed: no wedding. But, there would be a large traditional wedding here in two weeks, she said. On Oct. 31- Halloween Night. (Side note: they don’t really celebrate Halloween here.)
We vowed then and there to return to Budesti, connect with the family, and film this wedding. And now you can all see how best-laid plans can be quite mangled by the reality of documentary filmmaking.
We returned the car and wandered about Transylvania, having adventures both high and low, before bee-lining it back to Cluj Napoca to rent the same little bubbly Ford Ka we had rented before. As if the past two weeks had never happened, suddenly we were back in Maramures. Not such a bad place to be, really!
All we knew was that the wedding would take place in the villages of Budesti and Mara. No one could tell us where in town the groom’s pre-wedding parties, processions and dances would happen.
But having experienced this before, we knew if we just walked around Budesti’s narrow lanes in the early afternoon and listened for the traditional fiddle and horn music, our ears would take us where we wanted to go. We reached the groom’s festivities just in time for his uncle to fill our hands with dumplings, cakes and shots of Horinca.
It was a crazy day that we’ll try to capture in Episode 2.
But for now, after several epic train and bus journeys and two flights; after witnessing historic protests of the good kind (in Romania) and the not-so-good kind (in Warsaw, Poland), and the filming of yet another wedding (this one just as a favor for our friends in County Donegal, Ireland), we find ourselves house-sitting and wrangling our footage together in a quiet (and ordered) corner of the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) in Germany.
Here there are no protests. Few distractions, in fact, besides watering our friends’ plants, making pumpkin bread from the pumpkins on the back porch, watching the early snow-showers fall outside – and of course, editing away hours on end for the first two episodes of “A Wedding of Cultures” (“AWOC” for short).
There will be much more soon! Watch for more video and blog updates!
Or, The Practice Wedding. Continued from the previous post!
by Stax. Photos by Stax.
Saturday arrived, so we gathered our gear – stripped down a little, as this would just be a practice run – and drove to Oncesti to have coffee with Bud at his guesthouse (Pensiunea Bud Mariana) before we crashed the wedding. As we drove into town, lines of cars on either side of the road and boisterous accordion music gave away the location, a small house near the top of the hill.
At Bud’s, we ask one more time: “Is it really okay if we crash the wedding?”
As every red-blooded American knows, weddings are for GUESTS via INVITATION ONLY. You do not walk through someone’s backyard right behind their houses as a shortcut through the village (as people constantly do here) unless you want a visit from the cops, and you DO NOT crash weddings. Our American brains have difficulty comprehending that yes, it’s often perfectly all right for a foreigner to show up at the wedding of strangers in Maramures.
“Yes. Yes. Of course. It’s okay,” Bud reassures us. “People are very friendly here.”
Unfortunately Bud could not attend after all, so we’d be on our own for translators – hopefully there would be a teenager who wanted to practice their English there. We approached the wedding, striding purposefully toward the house to hide our anxiety. The sound of music and dancing grew louder. We were going to crash this wedding of complete strangers and worse, we were going to invade the proceedings with cameras and try to get some footage.
We stopped in front of the large wooden gate, next to a gaggle of young women who were dressed in a variety of very old and very new styles. Modern black dresses mixed with traditional sheepskin and woven wool vests over white puffy shirts, black and red skirts, tights and black furry boots. Some heads were bare, others covered in a colorful array of scarves.
Two older men in traditional garb stood, wobbling a bit with slight smiles on their faces, in front of the gate. One of the men brandished a giant bottle of tequila to pour shots for those just arriving.
“Is there a wedding happening? ” Ben asked one of the men n his inquisitive manner.
Before anyone could answer, a woman spied us from inside the gate. Her face lit up. She walked straight up to us and began to speak in rapid Spanish. From her gestures alone, we surmised her meaning: “Come inside, I’ll show you around!”
Her words hovered around my the language areas of my brain like hummingbirds, searching for flowers of meaning to pollenate. I struggled to snatch the different words. I hadn’t spoken Spanish since our trip to Spain and Morocco last year. My skills had been sitting in the dark and dusty parts of my brain and it was plainly obvious.
I tilted my head toward her and squinted my eyes a bit in concentration. With our powers combined, Beej and I deciphered that she was the sister of the groom and her name was Ileana. She grew up in Maramures, but she’d been living in Valencia, Spain, with two South American women – which is where she acquired the rapid-fire Spanish. While Ileana talked her father handed Beej the bottle of Tequila and urged both of us to take a deep swig. (Seriously, guys. Welcome to Romania.)
After the introductions, Ileana lead us past the revelers and into the house to show us the “traditional room” of the house. Many houses in the Maramures region have a room where they display large hand-crafted items – wool rugs, tapestries, and clothing – that the craftier women in the family hand-make. Ileana took down a particularly bright and colorful red vest and helped me put it on, gesturing for Beej to take a picture.
I took note of a row of heavy blankets and hanging from the wall, arranged similar the way that fancy wrapping papers or bolts of fabric are arranged horizontally in a store. Ileana grasped a part of one and rubbed the wool between her fingers. “Mi madre,” Ileana looked at us. “Mi madre hizo la manta.”
Her mother made this.
She pointed to my camera and mimed taking pictures. “Fotos.”
I held up my camera. “I can take photos?” I asked.
“Yes. Yes.” She nodded her head vigorously and waved her hand around the room. “Cualquier cosa.”
Anything. People started to fill the small room. One of them, a younger cousin in his 20’s from the area of Alba Iulia pretty far south of here, had very good English. So Ileana appointed him our minder during the rest of the groom’s party.
At one point we were seated at a table outside behind the courtyard beside the musicians, who were playing up a storm. An older woman, explained to be the groom’s mother, came by with plates and pointed at the meat and bread on the table. The older women in the family tend to do a lot of the planning and cooking around the weddings, we are to find out.
Horincă was poured, of course, along with big bowls of ciorbă, a creamy and sour soup well stocked with chunks of of sheep and cow stomach lining (tripe) that Americans don’t normally eat.
Through talking to the cousin, we find that he was as lost as we were about some of the customs here.
“I am from another village in a different region,” he told us. “If anyone dressed like these people in my town, we would think he was crazy!”
The groom’s pre-party was winding down. Let me explain: before the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom have separate pre-parties where they eat, drink, dance and take pictures with their respective families. It’s kind of like a pre-game of opposing football teams, except the different teams will get married instead of pounding each other into the ground.
After this event, we were told, the groom’s party would drive a huge procession of cars about 20km to meet up in the bride’s town, Sighetu Marmatiel, to join with the bride’s side.
Now, it didn’t seem to us the safest proposition to be involved in this train of cars after the amounts of horinca we’d seen some of the guests drink. But with luck, the entire groom’s family would make it in one piece.
But even after this, the night wouldn’t be over. After carousing some more in Sighetu, the complete wedding party would drive east to somewhere in the mountains near Viseu de Sus – over 50km the opposite direction – to marry.
Anyway, we were pretty sure this was the plan, but we didn’t have much time to confirm because soon everyone was on the move up the street in a large procession. They were only headed to their cars; but what a grand parade they were.
Musicians played near the front and set the beat, while at the head of the pack, a guy we later identified as the the groom’s best man twirled and tossed a big colorful flag into the air like a majorette of a marching band. Cars arriving in town had to weave around the huge procession to pass through. At one point, the crowd moved to the side as a mammoth tour bus edged past them. As he passed, the bus driver honked enthusiastically at the groom’s party below while all the passengers stood, waved and cheered.
Though we didn’t get a chance to follow the rest of the wedding that night – this was practice for the main event later in the month – we managed to get some photos of the party.
Stay tuned for Part Three!