Real traditions in Transylvania
When it comes to Transylvania, most of us still think of vampires, gothic castles, and werewolves.
Forever tarnished with the superstitious brush of Irish novelist Bram Stoker (who used the region as a setting for Dracula, although he never visited it), Transylvania has a turbulent history of battling empires and rich folklore.
The modern reality contrasts trendy Euro-bars in its capital of Cluj Napoca, with traditional farms and village life in the countryside.
Ethnic Hungarians, the largest minority group in Romania, exist here in a peaceful, albeit tense relationship with their Romanian counterparts, speaking a different language, even playing a different style of folk music.
When Sydney's Sally Corry first visited the region, she knew neither the language, nor anyone to show her around.
A musician drawn to traditional Romanian, Hungarian and Roma folk music, Corry's journey to the source led her to found Carpathian Tours, a small tour operator that aims to introduce tourists to the folklore, food and culture of rural Transylvania.
"It was really difficult," she explains. "I didn't last two weeks."
Attracted to the rich history of music and dance, she nevertheless returned, and slowly began to win over the trust of local musicians and villagers.
Over the next decade, saving money from her day job as a dental assistant back home while also performing in Sydney bars with her band, the Transylvaniacs, Corry returned to the region every year, cementing relationships, learning new skills from the old traditions.
She mastered the viola and double bass, and today can speak Hungarian fluently. Interest in her experiences sparked the idea for her Sydney-based tour company.
Offering customised four-day or weeklong tours to the region, Corry offers unique and authentic homestays with ethnic Hungarian families.
Departing from Budapest or Cluj Napoca, she takes visitors deep into the folk traditions of Hungary and Transylvania, while determined to keep her tours non-intrusive. By integrating locals into the experience, neither tourists nor villagers feel exploited.
The driver of my tour was a folk singer and musician. I would be staying in his village, sleeping in his house, and fed by his mother.
After arriving in Cluj Napoca by train from Bucharest, I immediately depart for the countryside, en route to the small ethnic Hungarian village of Ture.
I arrive at sunrise, just in time for a cup of fresh-brewed coffee, and the sound of the cowbells ringing from the hills. Each evening, local cows and water buffalo are led by the town shepherd into the surrounding hills, and each morning they return, the cows instinctively knowing their route back home.
Temperatures will crack the mid-30s by midday, but Ture is fresh and dewy before sunrise. Finally I understand the truth behind the expression "when the cows come home".
After a simple yet delicious homemade breakfast consisting of sheep cheese, a traditional roasted eggplant dish and some fresh tomatoes (everything here is organic, explains Corry), we visit the homes of some friendly locals.
I meet an old lady, well into her 80s, as she carries a pail of fresh milk to her kitchen, and strains it with a cloth.
Her dress is simple, her fingers swollen like traditional pork sausages. Not much has changed here in centuries, other than the ubiquitous satellite dish attached to the outside walls. Villages like Ture, with a population of 500, have electricity but no plumbing.
Homestays are basic, but Corry also offers a luxury option, in which visitors commute from more accommodating hotels in Cluj Napoca.
Two old men are stacking hay with pitchforks, stocking up for the long cold winter ahead.
Between the horse and buggy carts, cowbells, and traditional dress, it's as if I've stepped back in time. My accommodation is indeed basic, but comfortable enough, the 250-year-old stone house remarkably cool in the midday heat.
Traditions here are alive and well, and Corry explains how she had to work hard to accustom the locals to the strange ways of visiting tourists, and vice-versa.
If guests offer to help with the dishes, for example, it is seen as an insult to the host.
Villagers take their hospitality very seriously, and the guest should never have to work. Through countless conversations, Corry has managed to bridge the gap between the two cultures.
In the shadow of an old church, I visit another stone house where I am introduced to the "Good Room". Most houses have a room packed with colourful embroidery, clothes, dishes and furniture, where prospective brides would greet their suitors and show off their domestic talents.
Donning traditional clothing, I stepped into another era, just as I was literally stepping into a pair of 60-year old polished black boots. Today, the Good Room is a symbol of the ethnic Hungarian culture and tradition that continues to survive, even as children grow up and leave the villages for the cities.
The local band and dancers gather at the village hall at sunset, along with a crate of beer.
Corry explains these musicians live and breathe their music, performing for days on end at celebrations and festivals, and always at the beck and call of the villagers.
They strike up a folk song, the accordion bouncing a rhythm off the violins, a tall double bass building a deep foundation.
An old man, well into his 70s, begins to dance, slapping his boots, shaking his hips, gyrating with an energy that belies his age. Earlier I had seen him shovelling hay, and now, hours later, he is twirling a local woman with a sparkle in his eye.
Music and dance breathe life into the village.
Others gather, a teenage couple, a farmer and his wife, and they dance facing the band, keeping a bond.
We finish the day with a traditional BBQ, under a bright full moon, and beneath the shadows of plum trees.
The band stands in a semi-circle and rolls out the tunes, with Corry joining in for a couple of numbers.
They play Roma music, Romanian folk songs, Hungarian classics. We drink some palinka, a clear and strong homemade moonshine made of fermented plums (and perhaps strong enough to power a rocket ship).
The interaction with the locals, and the experience in itself, projects an overwhelming air of authenticity, a true meeting of cultures.
It has taken Sally Corry 15 years to build trust and relationships with the villagers of Transylvania, and the irony of an Australian working hard to introduce Carpathian folk music and culture to the west, is not lost on her.
By directing tourists away from the stereotype of vampires and monsters, Corry's tours are music to the ears of both locals and tourists alike.
IF YOU GO
Carpathian Tours depart from either Cluj Napoca, Romania, or Budapest, Hungary.
Lufthansa flies to Budapest from Sydney, connecting via Frankfurt, Singapore or Bangkok. British Airways flies to Bucharest, connecting via Singapore.
Cluj Napoca is an overnight train from Bucharest.
Tours range from $A710 for four-day excursions to $A1670 for eight-day excursions, excluding flights. Australians do not need a visa to visit Romania or Hungary up to 90 days.