Our gracious guide to the Szekelyderzs Fortified Church, Anita, patiently answered all our questions. She then led us out of the church back onto the lush green lawn inside the fortified walls. At this point, there was only one thing left to do, climb the Fortified Church’s bell tower. While my wife stayed behind chatting with Anita in Hungarian, I embarked on a climb to the top. Almost immediately, I realized that this was not going to be an easy task. There were five levels to scale using slanted ladders that doubled as the steepest set of stairs I have ever climbed. Some of the steps were nearly vertical. Each time I ascended a flight, I would find that scaling the next ladder was steeper and more dangerous than the last. The landings were not much better, at each one I could hear the planks beneath my feet rattling. Midway to the top, I realized that coming down would likely be much more dangerous than going up. That thought filled me with trepidation. I became more careful and reticence as I was beset by the thought of what might happen if I lost the courage to climb back down. Getting stuck in the tower for several hours until I could be rescued by a bunch of Szekely was a ridiculously romantic notion.
Living In The Shadows Of History – Standing On Its Own Merits
Such misgivings failed to stop my progress. I forced myself to keep climbing upwards. At one point I was forced to grip the wooden beams above me as an extra safety precaution. I had my mind set on getting to the top for no other reason than I thought there would be magnificent photo opportunities overlooking the village and surrounding landscape. Somewhere along the way it occurred to me just how much trust was placed in visitors to Szekelyderzs. People who were much less agile or sure footed than me probably attempted to summit the tower. This could possibly lead to dire results. Nonetheless, there was not a single sign warning anyone of the consequences. This was the sure sign of a less than litigious culture in Romania, especially compared to the United States. At your own risk meant just that. Such trust in common sense was refreshing, even if it might lead to accidents.
Very little of the property was off limits to visitors. A person was free to wander where they liked. Paying the entrance fee was obligatory, but in our case did not occur until the very end of our visit. At times, I had to remind myself that this was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the most exalted designation a historical or cultural site could ever hope to attain. And yet there were no guards, security was nonexistent, nothing was enclosed within glass or sequestered behind bars. I would later learn that only the church priest knows the riddle that can open the medieval lock that allows access to the fortified church. This was tradition, the basis for nearly everything in these villages. Those who lived in Szekelyderzs (Darjiu Romania) were used to living around this history. They did not deify or sanctify the site any more than it needed to be, the fortified church stood on its own merits. It was still as much a part of community life as it had been five hundred years before. No one need erect signage stating that this was one of the premier cultural sites in Eastern Europe. It was up to visitors to figure this out for themselves. Just as it was up to visitors to decide whether they could safely scale the bell tower.
The Illusion Of A Rural Idyll – Beyond The Fortified Walls
By the time I made it to the top, my hands were shaking and legs beginning to quiver. I now faced another problem. This bell tower was still in use today. I had lost track of time, having no idea how close it was to the top of the hour. I tried to be mindful that a bone rattling series of rings might be forthcoming at any moment. My attention was soon drawn to the windows where I could look out over the village and surrounding countryside. Just below where I stood was the church. From above it was even more impressive than below. The immaculately tiled reddish-orange roof imposed itself on the view. It dwarfed anything else in the village beyond the fortified walls. Rooftops of the houses in Szekelyderzs were mainly clustered around the road that wound through the village. I noticed that the tiles on many of the roofs were chipped or missing.
From above, the village looked quaint and unpretentious. A rural idyll to those who do not have to fight the elements or agricultural markets to eke out a living. This part of Romania was naturally blessed, but economically depressed when compared to the rest of the European Union. As part of what is known as the Centru (southern Transylvania) economic region it has an income per person that is just 54% of the EU average. I was not surprised. Rural life often looks inviting to those who have never lived within its economic strictures. The road through town showed multiple signs of agricultural life. Looking down at one stretch of road I counted four tractors and just a single car. Further out in the distance were the fields and meadows that provided a livelihood for so many of the villagers.
Limitless Possibilities – Walking Into Another World
The landscape looked beautifully bucolic. I felt the urge to give everything I had ever known up and begin walking towards the highest hillside in the distance. Then follow the forests and grasslands into another world, one filled with limitless possibilities. Dreams of months spent wandering around Szekely Land began to dance in my head. It could be the subject of a fascinating book and a different life, one that I lacked the courage to pursue. A man can still dream in Szekelyderzs. My imaginary process was interrupted by a rumble of thunder as dark clouds floated onto the horizon. A storm had suddenly formed. A reminder that forces beyond our control are always waiting outside the walls that we build to protect ourselves. Forces, that I was unwilling to confront.