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Sibiu: A Hidden Paradise in the Southeast of Europe

April 8, 2006

By Andra Matresu*

Did you know that in only eight short months, Europe’s honorary cultural capital is moving to Romania? In the following travel article, Sibiu native Andra Matresu makes the case for why her city and its surroundings are eminently worthy of the honor- and why they will enthrall visitors with a unique Transylvanian blend of nature, history and magic.Paradise was lost long before people knew it had existed; but in Sibiu, paradise still exists and people don’t even know it.

This was my reflection when a university professor asked us, the students, why we Romanians deserve to become EU citizens and, hence, how would we be able to contribute to the EU’s multicultural world. I thought immediately of my hometown, Sibiu, which next year will be honored as the European Cultural Capital of the year, in partnership with Luxembourg.

Sibiu is a medieval city and like the best books, it constantly preserves its mystery within itself. Have you ever happened to read the same book over and over again, but each time to experience new feelings and to discover new aspects? Sibiu is rich in this way, always rewarding visitors with something different and previously unknown, each time they come. To get a sense of its magic, readers can find a selection of photographs here.

The “European Cultural Capital” project dates back to 1985 when then- Greek Minister of culture Melina Mercouri came up with the idea. She saw it as a creative way to celebrate and bring together European culture.

The process by which a city is selected always involves a combination of luck, competition and self-promotion. A vital role in the selection of Sibiu for 2007 was played by our special partnership with Luxembourg in organizing the event. But it was also clearly time for us to be acknowledged for Sibiu’s steady growth in cultural, social and economic importance – all mainly brought about due to the city’s flourishing tourism. It is wonderful to note that while Sibiu has existed for more than 1000 years, with the soon-approaching honor, it continues to create a bright future for itself.

Sibiu: Some Background

The city on the River Cibin, Sibiu (“Hermannstadt” in German translation, or “Nagyszeben” in Hungarian) is situated in the center of Romania. With approximately 180,000 permanent inhabitants, Sibiu is the biggest city in its county (which has a total of about 423,061 inhabitants), making it one of the most important urban areas in Transylvania.

This famous locale is the region “beyond the forest” (from the Latin, “ultra silvam”), and it covers 16 counties. Of course, Transylvania is most famous for its connection to the famous novel “Dracula” by Bram Stocker, who has been strongly influenced and inspired by Emily Gerard’s 1885 essay “Transylvania Superstitions.” Today, visitors to the region can also experience something of the local magic – but none of the dangers – vividly illustrated in history’s most famous vampire story.

Containing as it does a significant Hungarian minority that has constantly sought greater political, social and economic rights, Transylvania has been depicted as a potential hotbed for violent ethnic conflict. With the end of the Soviet bloc in 1990, ethnic clashes in two cities, Cluj and Tirgu Mures, fuelled predictions about future violent disputes. However, further serious trouble didn’t happen.

In fact, Sibiu’s demonstrated multiculturalism and cultural tolerance manifested when the citizens elected a mayor of German ethnicity, Klaus Johannes. The mayor has proven his efficiency in administrating the county since 2000, being rewarded with re-election in 2005.

An Introduction to the City

Ever since its establishment, Sibiu has served as a foundation for people with interests in cultural and commercial trade. In the 17th century, the old walled town was believed by many to be the easternmost in the European sphere; interestingly enough, it was also the eastern terminal of postal routes and was the farthest place where mail from across Europe was delivered.

Testimony to Sibiu’s inextinguishable value, which approaches the qualities of a novel, is the romantic “Bridge of Lies.” This famous addition to the city was made in 1859, and at the time it was the first Romanian bridge to be made of wrought iron. On it, young lovers used to date in the old times and tell each other the innocent lies of love – lies which eventually became reality. Another legend, however, warned citizens not to tell lies on the bridge, lest it collapse.

Whether the legend is true or false, the Bridge of Lies unites the city’s two distinct entities: the upper city and the lower city. So Sibiu is like Budapest, Istanbul and other famous cities with a “unifying” bridge. But in addition to this, there is the old walled part of the city.

What is known as the “Lower City” (in Romanian, “OraˆšÃ–¬üul de jos”), comprises the area between the river and the hill. It developed around the earliest fortifications. In the Middle Ages, Sibiu be bordered by fortifications made up of imposing walls, punctuated by 39 defensive towers, 5 bulwarks, 5 artillery batteries and 4 gates. Its rustic architecture sparkles here and there; small city squares appear at places, lined by typical Romanian two-storey houses, all united by the oldest church in the city, dating back to 1386.

On the other side of the river is the “Upper City” (in Romanian, “OraˆšÃ–¬üul de sus”), where most of today’s “important things” happen. As an evolution of human solidarity, three city squares and a set of streets along the line of the hill seem to be in eternal dispute over rank.

One of the grandest is the “Large Square” (in Romanian, “PiaˆšÃ–£a Mare,” in German, “Grosser Ring” or “Grosser Platz”). As its name suggests, this is the largest square of the city, and has represented the center of the city since the 16th century. At 142 meters long by 93 meters wide, it is one of the largest squares in Transylvania. It used to serve as a marketplace, and afterwards assemblies – and even public executions – were held there.

Nowadays, UNESCO protects this enormous quadrangle, one which houses cultural monuments and prime tourist spots such as the Brukenthal Palace, one of the most important Baroque monuments in Romania. In fact, a former Governor of Transylvania, Samuel von Brukenthal, used to live in this building, which dates from the year 1785. Superb masterpieces of painting, engraving and decorative arts form the main part of the National Brukenthal Museum, which opened in 1817.

To the west side of the museum stands the fairytale Blue House, an 18th-century Baroque home bearing the city’s symbol, the old coat of arms of Sibiu, on its facade. The Jesuit Church along with its dependencies is based on the north side and to the west of this is a political temple designed in an unusual Art Nouveau style, and housing the mayor’s office.

There is also an impressive Council Tower, one of the most famous symbols of Sibiu; it unites the Large Square and the Small Square through two tunnels. As with the bridge, so with the tunnels: the city of Sibiu was designed so as to link its people.

Outside the City: Mountains and Folk Tradition

There are numerous places of natural beauty and enjoyment near Sibiu. Some 35 km from the city is Paltinis, a ski resort which is the highest (1440 m altitude) and oldest in Romania. Buses go four times a day from the city to this stunningly beautiful resort.

An unusual getaway, Ocna Sibiului, is located 12 km from Sibiu. The town contains historic churches, an abandoned salt mine and several restorative thermal baths.

Third, for lovers of mountain climbing and hiking there is the impressive Fagaras mountain range. Running some 30 km south of Sibiu, Fagaras contains the highest peaks in the Carpathian Mountains – Moldoveanu (2544 m), Negoiu (2535 m), Vistea Mare (2527 m) and Vanatoarea lui Buteanu (2507 m). Here there are mountain huts where hikers can rest from July through mid-September, and camping is also allowed. This breathtaking natural paradise is full of wildlife, untouched wilderness and glacial lakes.

Finally, a place where visitors can still experience the past, in the traditional life of rural Romania, is found in the foothills of the Cindrel Mountains, in southwestern Sibiu county. Consisting of around 18 villages, the area has a unique ethnological, cultural, architectural and historical heritage.

As a wise old Romanian proverb put it, “the man sanctifies the place.” In this picturesque landscape, scenic and mountainous, let shepherds tell you about their wanderings, inevitably linked to their traditional occupation and age-old traditions, while enjoying a snack consisting of the local cheese with tomatoes.

In this region, a complex variety of customs are kept alive, all associated with the most sacred moments in Romanian tradition. For instance, local people still maintain the custom of glass painting; in the famous, 25 kilometer-long village of Sibiel is kept the largest glass-painted icon collection in all of Europe. The tradition is strongly related with the Romanian Orthodox Church, by far the main religion of the inhabitants.

One folk celebration which has been preserved and which is often enjoyed by tourists too, Nedeia, is a spectacle held atop a high mountain plateau during summer. The festival usually includes folk songs, dance performances and traditional fairs beloved by people from the different sides of the mountain

In this mountainous area in the heart of Europe, a bygone world still exists. People here still wear traditional black-and-white folk costume, and men dispute their supremacy by wearing a particular round hat without borders. As for the women of the villages, they remain mostly reluctant to technological evolution – you may encounter women still shocked at the idea of a mobile phone! Amazingly enough, many still refuse to travel by train, and chose the carriage instead.

There is a widespread prejudice among these rural Romanians that if women get pregnant before marriage, a grave dishonor has been done; the father-to-be is thus usually obliged by the patriarch to marry his daughter. The idea of divorce in such villages is naturally a disgraceful one. However, Romanian villagers are friendly people and you’ll quite surely here them tell you, “we’re glad you are here and hope you will come back often!”

Architecture and Museums

Classic Romanian architecture was strongly influenced by the Saxons: the grand and imposing houses with their skillfully carved wooden porches are lined up along the narrow lanes, with an internal yard well closed in on all sides. Traditionally, wood was the main material used in construction, but over the last hundred years it has been replaced by bricks, so that today only a small number of wooden houses can be found.

Typical traditional Romanian architecture is well preserved in the dreamlike landscape of the open-air Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization (the Astra Museum Complex), the first ethnographic and historical museum of the Romanians in Transylvania. The Astra complex now comprises a consortium of museums with permanent exhibits of international (Franz Binder World Ethnography Museum), national (Museum of Transylvanian Civilization) and ethnic culture (the Emil Sigerus Museum for Transylvanian Saxon Folk Crafts and Ethnography).

There is also the Roma Museum, with a photographic and film archive, in the planning stages. The compelling Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization provides authentic Romanian folk culture in all its geographic and thematic variety and concentrates on the study of tools, technical devices and systems used by Romanian artisans. It is based in the Dumbrava Forest, some 4 km from Sibiu – a true paradise on earth. It mostly comprises houses from different Romanian cultural milieus. These original and unique monuments are significant for their cultural value.

While relaxing and admiring the simple traditional lifestyle of the Romanian people in the preserved homes, you may be overwhelmed by the silence and stillness of it all. The windmills from nearby Dobrudja watch over the Danube Delta, its floating bridges and fishing boats. One can enjoy the moment by having a hot cup of wine to mark the friendship. And perhaps it may seem so real that you actually believe people live here; but remember, it is called a museum, because this world doesn’t exist anymore, even though we might want it to.

UNESCO’s report of the year 2000 on global results declared Romania to be one of the two European states (along with France) and four Asian ones (Japan, Thaliand, South Korea and the Philippines) to preserve cultural tradition by safeguarding tangible aspects of cultural heritage. Our country has further shown its dedication to culture through the Romanian Academy for Traditional Art’s “Living Human Treasures” program.

Economic Gains: Sibiu Today

The above mentioned are the prime places to see for foreign visitors coming to Europe’s upcoming cultural capital. Finally we can say a few words about more practical things, such as the economic dimensions of life in Sibiu.

While Romania is still a poor country and some might wonder whether there are in fact any economic aspects to Sibiu, the city can proudly point out that its Bourse has become the strongest in Romania. According to its statement, in January it ended with total transactions of 261,231 futures and options – the equivalent of more than 36 percent of last year’s total, while volume is up to over 125 million euros.

Connection with the outside world was solidified due to the recent renovation of Sibiu Airport by one of the most powerful airline industry companies in the world, Dornier Consulting. The presence of such a prominent foreign company in this little Romanian city proves that Sibiu is on its wings to Europe.

Furthermore, important investments are being made in Sibiu, especially in the area of textiles and manufacturing – as it was way back in the 14th century, when Sibiu was an important trade center, its craftsmen divided into 19 different guilds. At that time, Sibiu was primarily an ethnically German city, and the most important among the seven cities that gave Transylvania its German language name of Siebenbergen.

Another unique aspect regarding the city’s economic life is the presence here of one of the few important Romanian exporters of domesticated livestock. SC Europeenne SRL provides donkeys, bulls and horses to buyers all over Europe, always marked by their high quality.

Sibiu: Let it Conquer Your Senses

All in all, it looks that the citizens of the European Union and other visitors as well are in for a pleasant surprise with the imminent arrival of Sibiu as Cultural Capital of Europe for 2007. And we can hardly wait to welcome those curious visitors who would like to enjoy a taste of Transylvanian culture in one of the most beautiful preserved cities in Romania.

For those of us from Sibiu, this represents an unparalleled opportunity to assert the city’s identity on the European cultural map, and of course to generate all-important media interest and tourism gains. So don’t be surprised if, as the year goes on, you start to hear more and more about this lovely city in the Romanian hills!

To return to the intriguing question of the professor mentioned in the beginning, I would therefore have to say that we Romanians deserve to be called citizens of the European Union, because we bring value through cities like Sibiu, highlighting our common European heritage. But don’t just take my word for it – come to visit Sibiu, and let this amazing city conquer your senses. For while any number of cities can be beautiful, historic, cultured, etc., none of them can have the unique magic that one feels all around this inviting little city in the heart of Romania.

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A proud native of Sibiu, Andra Matresu is currently studying International Relations-European Studies at the University of Bucharest. She has done internships with the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Public Finances (as well as volunteer work with both young mothers and the elderly) and hopes to possibly go into the field of diplomacy in the future. No matter what job she finds herself in, however, Andra would most of all like to be a force for positive change in the world.

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