The word floated in the air. It was whispered in wonder as we walked past the cheese mongers, and later it was called out excitedly over heaps of fruit in the farmers’ area. It travelled down the road with us, volleying from one market stall to the next. Our presence at the Sunday market was rather unexpected, and this couldn’t have been made clearer. After all, the town of Zarnesti is not a common stop for tourists visiting Romania.
As I wandered through the open marketplace in my mud-coated shoes, carrying an overstuffed rucksack and a bulky camera, my attempts to blend in with the locals and evade the onslaught of curious gazes became futile. I wanted to take photos, loads of them, and there was no way I could have done so discreetly. Perhaps it was my unpleasant experience in Marrakech that urged me to lie low this time, but as I approached the busy stalls with the rest of the group, the hawkers were more than happy to have turisti snapping away to their heart’s content.
Zarnesti is the main gateway to the Piatra Craiului National Park; a stunning, well-preserved wilderness in the Southern Carpathian Mountains. During the Communist era, the town housed the largest munitions factory in Romania (disguised as a bicycle factory), which employed around 13,000 people from a population of 25,000. But as you walk through the town’s narrow, winding lanes and past rows of traditional Transylvanian houses with pastel-coloured facades, it’s hard to believe that this place was once a military and industrial hub run by an oppressive regime.
Zarnesti’s industrial plants closed down right after the Romanian Revolution of 1989, but the town remained off the tourist radar for at least another two decades. It’s only recently that this remote corner of Romania started enjoying a boom in tourism. There are quite a few family-run pensiuni (guesthouses) in Zarnesti, so many people travelling to Transylvania for the wildlife tours in the ancient woodlands of Piatra Craiului base themselves in town.
The shepherds were the first to notice the group of foreigners heading towards the market. They beckoned us towards makeshift tables laden with several types of cheese. Traditionally, Transylvanian shepherds lead sheep and cows through forests and meadows high up in the Carpathian Mountains, where bears, wolves and lynx are a common threat. Cheese is produced in a small shack which normally serves as shelter for the shepherds. It is then wrapped in pine bark and ferried to village markets on carts drawn by horses or donkeys.
Due to EU food safety standards, many Transylvanian shepherds had to abandon the ancient way of cheese-making when Romania became an EU member in 2007.
Despite having had a big breakfast that morning, the sight of all those cheese rounds had rekindled my appetite. After walking past stalls selling uninspiring clothes and imitation shoes, we arrived at the farmers’ area, where we were immediately enveloped by a wave of excited chatter.
Zarnesti’s primary occupation has always been agriculture. Age-old farming methods are still widely used in mountain villages, which means that most of the crops and products found at the market are organic, including honey and jams.
Our next stop was the Roma market. Women in long, multicoloured skirts and equally colourful scarves walked around heaps of shabby clothes strewn across the ground, filling the air with their cries. The only word I could pick up was moda. Nevertheless, the area was teeming with shoppers, and I must admit; some of the clothes there didn’t look half as bad as my mud-stained combats and scruffy jacket.
The Romani people (not to be confused with Romanians) are the largest ethnic minority in Romania and their presence in the country dates back to the 14th century. Originally from India, the Roma live in tight-knit communities and have their own settlements across Europe. They have suffered severe persecution throughout history, especially during World War II, when an estimated 2 million Romani died in concentration camps. The Roma remain a widely ostracised and misunderstood community in modern-day Europe, and they are too often used as scapegoats for a variety of crimes and social ills.
The official Roma population in Romania is around half a million people, although it is estimated that there are at least 2 million Romani in the country. Due to the social stigma attached to them, many Roma communities prefer to remain detached from the rest of society. This isolation also helps them retain their own traditions and preserve their unique identity.
The Roma divide themselves into groups, according to their profession or trade. One of the Roma villages near Zarnesti is occupied by cauldron makers, who make cauldrons out of copper and sell them at markets. However, no one’s really sure where the cauldron makers get their copper from, although there’s a growing suspicion that they pilfer it from the country’s railway lines.
On our way out of the market, I noticed that the cheese mongers had only a few rounds of cheese left on their tables. The streets were suddenly brimming with local shoppers. People filing out of church were heading down towards the market for the usual Sunday outing, and, judging by the look of surprise on their face, I could tell that they weren’t used to seeing big groups of tourists sweating their way up the hill.
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