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Trail of the unexpected: Easter in Transylvania

Ancient traditions remain a way of life in rural Romania. Margaret Campbell experiences a Transylvanian Easter

'Hristos a înviat!", exclaimed the buffalo farmer, by way of greeting her customers. The phrase translates from Romanian as "Christ is risen!". The recipient knows to respond "Adevarat c-a înviat!" ("He is risen indeed!"). This turned out to be the usual exchange across Transylvania in the week following Easter – and, in rural areas, for up to 40 days after Easter Sunday. Romania may have endured one of the nastiest of the Communist dictatorships, but even in the most difficult days of the Ceausescu regime the population clung to a centuries-old mix of pagan and Christian traditions. Easter was – and is – the highlight of the Christian year.

I arrived in Transylvania on Good Friday, alas too late for Thursday's ritual of dyeing eggs in onion skins and decorating them with beeswax, leaves and symbolic motifs, but in time to hear another tradition. As we drove along the main Arad-Bucharest road, which passes through numerous villages, an unusual sound was audible from churchyards – the toaca, wooden sticks being beaten together to mark a special occasion.

Transylvania is a corner of Europe whose rural areas have been largely overlooked by so-called progress. The landscapes specialise in enchantment: rolling hills of deep green, punctuated by farmhouses and cottages that look positively medieval – a sense emphasised by the use of livestock rather than motor vehicles to work the land.

These dream-like images were reinforced by the eerie, insistent soundtrack. The percussion was especially striking from the ruins of Soimos Castle, built on the summit of a hill overlooking the Mures Valley. At Gurasada we stopped at the tiny chapel and caught the tail end of an outdoor service: the congregation knelt on the ground as the priest issued final exhortations for Easter preparation, then we moved inside for a glimpse of the 14th-century murals.

Easter is an especially slippery feast in Romania. The Orthodox Church generally follows the Julian calendar for Christmas, but switches allegiance to the Gregorian calendar for Easter. Happily, this year the Julian and Gregorian chronologies coincide, and Paste will be celebrated tomorrow across Europe. It is a fascinating time to visit the country.

We were spending the Easter weekend in Hunedoara – a town whose steelworks actually precedes the grim decades of communism. There has been a foundry here since the 18th century: the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor noted it when he walked across Romania in the 1930s. The road into town is dominated by a vast and unsightly steelworks. But it makes only a modest dent in your appreciation of the imposing Corvin Castle, a magnificent Gothic edifice complete with moat, turrets and lookout points.

On Saturday evening, our hostess elected not to attend the Easter celebrations in the town's main church – "too many people, too much show" – so instead we accompanied her to a relatively new chapel near the hospital, picking our way down a footpath in the dark.

The church was packed and noisy, but settled down once the two priests arrived: one dressed in rich red and gold robes, the other in silver vestments. If devotion can be measured in time, this service was devout indeed: it lasted nearly three hours.

The high point came after midnight, when the entire congregation, holding beeswax candles in paper cones, followed the officiants three times around the building. It was an astonishing scene, witnessed from across the road by white-robed members of the hospital staff. They stood watching, their silhouettes framed by candles, and added another surreal aspect to proceedings.

Easter Sunday – and the next two mornings – began with wine-soaked bread, the wine and bread having been distributed at the previous night's service, and the ceremonial cracking and eating of the decorated eggs.

A veritable paschal feast of roast lamb followed, as our hosts ate meat for the first time since Shrove Tuesday and we shared pasca, a cheese-stuffed cake.

I had expected to see monks at the Prislop Monastery, a few miles from the village of Silvasu de Sus. But the complex turned out to be a convent, and I marvelled at the young age of many of the black-veiled girls who guided the crowds of Easter Monday pilgrims.

Along with the other women wearing trousers, I was stopped at the carved wooden gates and given an apron to wear for the duration of the visit. Set in a beautiful wooded valley, the chapel is covered in rich frescos, but hardier visitors climb past the small cemetery to a cave on the rock-cliff, once used by hermits and now housing an icon.

Some miles further, more nuns arrived while we toured the unusual Church of St Nicholas at Densus – constructed in part from Roman masonry (perhaps even the remains of a mausoleum). Roman inscriptions are legible on an inside column, longer-lasting than the eyes of several saints on the 15th-century murals, allegedly destroyed by iconoclastic Calvinists. As we examined the graveyard, where Hungarian tombstones lie alongside Latin inscriptions and Romanian crosses, the nuns began singing an Easter psalm, their unaccompanied voices drawing us back inside.

The rest of the week was spent dropping into small churches and exploring the Unesco-recognised Dacian and Roman ruins that lie scattered around Hunedoara County. The highlight was Sarmizegetusa Regia, reached via several miles of unpaved road followed by a strenuous uphill trek.

The capital of pre-Roman Dacia is worth the journey into the mountains: once the centre of a vibrant and complex empire but destroyed by the Romans just after 100 AD, the site is now peaceful and crowd-free. The stone blocks and circular columns of the sanctuaries in the "sacred zone" contrast with the heavy stone fortresses that protected the residential area.

The walk to the Costesti-Cetatuia fortress, seven miles away, was easier, but the fortifications less impressive. However, the view across the neighbouring hills made it clear why this strategic spot had been chosen for a series of defensive terraces.

The Romans built a new capital 25 miles from Sarmizegetusa Regia, on a plain not far from the modern town of Hateg. The Colonia Ulpia Triana provided all the amenities expected of a Roman city – an amphitheatre, thermal baths, a forum, temples and housing; although much lies in ruins (the Goths destroyed it in their turn), the historical reality seems very close, especially after a visit to the neighbouring museum.

Following a visit to the Hunedoara market, where local farmers sold buffalo products, including homemade yoghurts and cheeses, we were invited to a small buffalo holding in the hills. Its owner was eager to show us her cattle; they were grazing in a communal field, but came lumbering towards her immediately, searching for the corn cobs they knew she hid in an apron. As other customers arrived and called out Easter greetings, I was delighted to have stumbled across this still-unspoilt corner of Europe.

Travel essentials: Transylvania

Getting there

The main gateway for Transylvania is Cluj-Napoca, served from Luton on Wizz Air (00 48 22 351 9499; wizzair.com). Wizz Air also flies from Luton to Timisoara, to the west, and Bucharest to the east. The Romanian capital is also served from Heathrow on BA (0844 497 0787; ba.com) and Tarom (020-7224 3693; tarom.ro). An alternative is the Hungarian capital, Budapest.

Getting around

Car rental is readily available, but the road accident rate is more than three times higher than in the UK. Although road surfaces have improved in recent years, driving standards have not, and few villages have dedicated pavements for pedestrians. The Foreign Office warns drivers "to be alert for horse-drawn carts and livestock especially at night."

CFR (Romanian Railways) runs an extensive national network, with low fares. Covering 100 miles on (painfully slow) stopping trains costs as little as 18 lei (£4), or three times as much on Inter City services.

Departures are infrequent and unpredictable: schedules on station notice boards differ from those printed in the national timetable, which in turn are at odds with those available online at infofer.ro.

Private minibuses operate on local and rural routes, and supplement rail services over longer distances; they are more expensive, but often faster and more frequent.

More information

Romanian National Tourist Office: 020-7224 3692; romaniatourism.com