The fragrance of sweet incense and the silence enveloped me, and I knelt for a long time, just breathing in the quietness and the strange perfume.
I am just back from two meetings in Romania — one on the Healing of Memories in Eastern Europe and the other on issues of ethnic, cultural and religious identity and how they affect us today.
In Bucharest, I stopped at the Lutheran guest house with its beautiful vine courtyard. Being hungry, I went for a very late lunch to a nearby café. I sat there drinking in the beauty of a country with a varied history. I noticed a large tree in front of a building riddled with bullet holes and wondered at the many stories it could tell. Every city in the world has its own stories of pain to tell. Bucharest is very elegant, with tall minarets, church spires and orthodox crosses spanning its skyline. The communist regime destroyed almost all the beautiful old buildings and replaced them with ones that resemble pigeon holes. Tall, leafy, green trees line the sidewalks and hide the ugly grey buildings. Walking back, an old Roma (gypsy) woman with silvery long hair approached me with outstretched arms. As I dug into my bag, my companion said, “Don’t encourage people like her.” The itinerant poor are treated the same the world over, I thought to myself.
In the evening, I boarded a bus for a five-hour ride to the Sambata monastery in the Transylvanian region (yes, the same place where Dracula originated from). Nestled at the foot hills of the Carpathian mountains, the monastery has survived several wars and destructive conquerors, including the Communists.
The air was fresh and cold and wonderful after the May heat of Vellore. Sunshine stretched on till about 9.30 p.m., lighting everything with a mellow, polished glow. The Sambata monastery where I was staying was the picture of tranquillity. Long, polished, marble corridors led to my room. Bright yellow walls opened out into a wooden balcony and a breathtaking view of the snow-topped mountains. A special delight was catching up with Gert Ruppell, my Finnish friend and soul mate with whom I have co-authored several books.
I desperately needed a cup of coffee early the next morning. Yohann, the receptionist, made me a cup of steaming coffee and took me outside. It was around five o’clock in the morning, but sunny, so I went out to explore. The pebbled path led to the old wooden chapel and I couldn’t resist going in. The gentle glow of ivory-coloured candles by the altar welcomed me. The fragrance of sweet incense and the silence enveloped me, and I knelt for a long time with my eyes closed, just breathing in the quietness and the strange perfume.
The aroma of fresh bread took me to the dining room. Breakfast was of thick cut, warm bread, just out of the oven, three dips made of red peppers, aubergines and cheese; black olives, olive oil, and honey from the monastery. Nice and wholesome.
We had a whole day of presentations from various delegates. Story after story of pain and immense suffering of individuals and groups whose lives have been torn apart by war and violence.
Maida, a young Muslim girl from Bosnia Herzegovina spoke in a choked voice while relating the brutal story of her family and her country. Juan, of the Aymara tribe from Chile, said that they are now less than 55 in number and were fighting for survival. Lordena, a beautiful Roma girl, brought tales of deep pain from her travelling community. Olga, from Hungary, who lost both her parents was brought up in a communist orphanage with its own oppressive ways; Professor Dauodi from Palestine and Professor Kuner from the Jewish community in Bucharest all had such heartbreaking personal stories to share.
The monastery had a long, open marble corridor for meditation and silence. Just what I needed, so I spent a lot of time just walking and praying.
Lunch and dinner were huge meals of large bowls of soup and bread, fish or meat with vegetables, fruit and cake for dessert. According to orthodox tradition, the meal was eaten in silence. The concentration being on the food, the growers and the provider.
From Sambata we went to Bucharest, and visited the old Roman Catholic church and the Jewish synagogue. I had never been inside a synagogue before. The rich splendour of the carvings and the ornate, golden ceiling with the great Star of David at the centre was impressive. It was a holy experience to hear familiar scriptures read from the context of another faith and in a different language. I heard and saw pictures of the holocaust all around the walls of the synagogue. There were names, ration cards, photographs, school reports, letters, family shopping lists — all reminding us that these were people like you and me who had an ordinary life and not just numbers, who disappeared.
From Bucharest we drove down to Constanta, by the Black Sea. Constanta was the port that connected the East and the West. Our meetings here were held in the National Museum. The room in which the sessions were held was beautifully painted and told the story of the early conquests of Romania by the Romans and the Turks. It was rather ironic that we were discussing reconciliation while surrounded by powerful images of past violence……the same violent memories by which many Romanians are still divided.
We had our meals at the orthodox archbishop’s palace. Gold plates, crystal glasses and beautiful napkins. A young monk was about to pour some golden coloured liquid into my tiny glass. “Not for her,” said Gert. “She won’t like it.”
I couldn’t believe it! “Not even my husband dared to tell me what to drink and what not to,” I said, and insisted on having it. The schnapps made a hole from the top of my throat to my stomach…but of course I said it was great! Then came a plate of tiny morsels of all kinds of fish, slithers of lemon and bite-size pieces of flavoured bread, followed by soup. The main meal was usually fish as we were by the sea, and a crisp salad followed to clean our palate. Then came fruit and a variety of delicious spongy desserts. Every meal was a treat in taste, colour and presentation. The fruit and vegetables were grown at the residence of the archbishop and the different wines too were made there.
There was a day at Mangalia, another seaside village which hosts one of the oldest mosques in Europe. The soft, velvety, deep-red carpets, the silence inside and all our hearts joined in one in prayer made this a holy experience too.
The keepers of the mosque treated us to a wonderful Turkish buffet lunch. Meat pasties with curled edges, bread rolls filled with meat and vegetables, small sugared pastries filled with Turkish delight, tiny cakes with pastel icing and of course strong Turkish coffee.
Being part of the coming together with the three great faiths in this region, sharing their pain, understanding their working traditions and rituals, being part of their worship, helping each one to let go of familiar prejudices and take one step towards understanding and reconciliation, was an incredible honour.
Getting there Most airways heading to Europe fly to Bucharest with changeovers in Vienna or Frankfurt.
Places to visit
Maramures: Romania’s rural heart with wooden churches and farms. Good for walking and trekking.
Sighisoara: a medieval town; explore the castles and Dracula’s legend.
Brasov: Surrounded by mountains and near ski runs.
Timisoara: Kick-off point for revolution of 1989, a welcoming, student town.
Bucharest: Several museums, churches, mosques, synagogues, parks, concerts.
Things to do
Cruise on the Danube.
Stay in a monastery and experience the tranquillity of monastic life.
Transfãgãrãsan Road: Dizzying drives zigzag past jagged cliffs and glacial lakes, where snowball fights last all summer
Arges Valley: The REAL Dracula’s castle, amidst monasteries and views into the soaring Fãgãrãs Mountains.
Bucovina Monasteries: Colour-coded monasteries with storytelling murals, painted to tell tales for bored soldiers.
Bicaz Gorges: Twisting gorge, home to a “blood”-filled lake and mountain climbs.
Danube Delta: Desolate fishing villages reached by a labyrinth of canals.
Székely Land: Hungarian traditions linger with colourful Habsburg-style Târgu Mures, and apocalyptic salt mines with slides and internet access.
Hunedoara: Soviet-style industrial town and unlikely home to Transylvania’s spookiest castle
Prahova Valley: Year-round activities, with mountain-biking and ski-trails atop the Bucegi Mountains from valley towns Sinaia and Busteni.