Over the hills and far away: Vaideeni

(From 2013)

At the start of June, I left Jina and took a bus south through the Carpathian Mountains to Vaideeni.  Although they had once been in separate countries, and had a 40-mile-wide barrage between them, these two communities were very close.  I wanted to know more.

Vaideeni is one of six settlements that Transylvanian shepherding families founded or colonised on the southern slopes of the Carpathians.  They came in the 18th century, and were escaping from religious persecution.  Five of these villages were in the foothills of the Capatanii and Parang ranges.  The names of the other four are Novaci, Babeni, Polovragi, and Baia de Fier.  There is another village populated by Transylvanian shepherds in the Fagaras Mountains to the east of the Olt River; it is called Corbi.

The families in question were Orthodox Christians and when the Habsburgs arrived in Transylvania, having beaten the Turks back from the gates of Vienna, they treated the Orthodox Romanians as schismatics.  In the 1760s, an Austrian general called von Bukow took things into his own hands and tried to convert Romanians to Roman Catholicism by force.  He slaughtered Orthodox priests and burnt their churches.  Romanians who refused to be intimidated either stuck to their guns and suffered the consequences (not only brutality but social and economic relegation), disguised their Orthodox churches as Catholic ones (as in Sibiel for example), or fled.

Some Romanians had already opted for a compromise religion, initiated in 1698, called Greco-Catholicism, or Uniatism.  Greco-Catholics follow the same liturgy as Orthodox Christians (translated into Romanian instead of Church Slavonic) but they recognise the Pope as their supreme head rather than a Patriarch.  When the Jesuits came to Transylvania in the late 17th century, pressure on the existing population to become Westernised increased.  This created a backlash which led to a strengthening of the Romanian Orthodox movement.  Transylvania is a mosaic of nations of which the Hungarians, Germans and Szekely have played a huge part, economically, politically and culturally.  By the mid-19th century if not beforehand, ethnic Romanians were in the majority but once the Hungarians had emancipated themselves from the Habsburgs, and the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary came into being, in 1868 they began an assimilation programme of their own, pushing non-Magyars to adopt their language in almost every walk of life.  From a nationalistic point of view, it is ironic that the movement for Romanian independence found a greater supporter in the Greco-Catholic than the Orthodox Church.

Even though they came from the ethnically Romanian enclave of Marginimea Sibiului, the shepherds who arrived from the north are still known as Ardeleni (from Erdely, the Hungarian name for Transylvania), or Ungureni (Hungarians).

The villages that the Ardeleni fled to lie on the other side of the mountains from their original homes, a good, long way from the likelihood of reprisals.  They are also in another country, belonging to what Romanians call Tara Romaneasca, the Romanian Land.  You may know this area as Wallachia.  Containing two separate regions of its own (Oltenia and Muntenia), it is the southern part of Romania, between the Southern Carpathians and the River Danube.  Although subjugated for 400 years to Ottoman Turkey – and for two decades, part of Oltenia was in fief to the Habsburgs – Wallachia was politically as well as geographically separate from Transylvania until 1918.

As the crow flies, it is only 72 kms (45 miles) between Jina and Vaideeni.  By bus, it is about twice that distance.  On foot, you have to cross three sets of ridges, Cindrel, Lotru and the aforementioned Capatanii, which if my Romanian serves me right, means The Stubborn Ones.  Lotru is a Romanian word for outlaw, showing what the locals thought of those particular mountains.  In any case, it is quite a hike between the two, involving strenuous climbs – a further 1000 metres above J – by narrow paths or open heath, through woodland with its undergrowth and pitfalls, where it is easy to get lost, across rivers without bridges, and precipitate plunges into deep valleys.  This part of Romania is still remote from the rest of the country.  It is one of the few remaining habitats in Europe for brown bears, wolves and lynx.  You occasionally come across a mountain skete (small monastery), cabins and summer folds, but the forest cover makes it hard to see where you are going, so for a family of shepherds stealing away in the night with their sheep and donkeys, it would have taken days.

In Vaideeni, the wilderness comes very close.  This small town of 4,300 people wriggles along the southern slopes of the Capatanii range whose thickly wooded ridges form one of the thousands of individual crests in the great Southern Carpathian wave.

Above Vaideeni, dense forest fingers the orchards, gardens and hay meadows, hemming them in along the rocky banks of the Luncavat and Miercurea streams.

To the south, although you can’t see it from here, the ruffled landscape subsides into the Oltenian plain, whose barren atmosphere will become unbearable in the summer drought.  I am doing it an injustice, because there are fascinating places to see there too, but when I went there at the start of June, I was happy to be in the mountains, among shepherds and the shady trees.

At first sight, the two communities of Jina and Vaideeni look worlds apart.  The houses, churches, landscape, and even the pace of life appeared totally different – here the people were more relaxed, more gung-ho, and more Mediterranean.  I noticed that the climate too had changed: it was noticeably warmer on the southern slopes of the Carpathians.

My host in Vaideeni was Dl. Jinaru.  His name means ‘from Jina’, and his family was one of those that had made their escape from the Habsburgs’ religious tyranny.  Until recently, Dl. Jinaru had been mayor but even in semi-retirement he was busy with village affairs, and when I arrived he was preoccupied with preparations for Vaideeni’s annual folk festival, due to start in three weeks’ time.

Sitting round a table on his verandah, we looked at old family photos.  They showed his parents and grandparents in the distinctive dress of Marginimea Sibiului: a black and white colour scheme consisting of, for women, a beautiful white cotton blouse decorated with black embroidery in parallel stripes from the round neck and along the puffed sleeves, with a black apron, and a black head shawl, and for men, black waistcoats over long, flared white shirts and white trousers with black Astrakhan hats – close to how the Dacians are shown on Trajan’s Column.

As for his family’s links to transhumance, Dl Jinaru was at first rather vague: he was not a sheep farmer any more and the practice was hardly seen in this area.  Farmers who grazed their sheep away from home either walked them up and down between the village and the summer folds or carried them by truck to grazing further away.  Warming to his subject, though, he told me that shepherds from Vaideeni had travelled across the Danube with their flocks, either swimming them across the river to Bulgaria or Serbia, or finding fording places.  Some would probably have gone to Dobrogea, like the other Margineni I knew of.  While Romania and Bulgaria were still under Turkish suzerainty, shepherds may have traversed the river without paying taxes.  The Ardeleni on the other hand, had to account for their animals on the way to Ottoman territory and back: records show that in the mid-19th century, flocks of several thousand head regularly passed to and fro.

Dl. Jinaru kindly found me a room in a motel run by one of his cousins.  A mile or so to the north of Vaideeni, it was a modern, block-built building with straight edges, chrome fittings and polyurethane windows.  Its colour scheme consisted of a very standard brown, beige and white but it was very comfortable.  It was also virtually empty.  Luminita, the caretaker, told me that the motel was usually full at weekends when a lot of people came from Bucharest and other Wallachian cities to walk in the mountains.  I could see why: we were right on the edge of the forest, streams riddled their way through the gardens and the roses were in riotous full bloom.  A small, semi-derelict farm adjoined the motel, but nobody seemed to be living there.

Early the next day, Dl. Jinaru’s son dropped me at the primaria, the town hall.

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