It’s Sunday, I’m in the kitchen making a cafe from freshly picked blackberry. The boys have gone to the shop in the village centre. On Sundays, before and after church services, the shop is open. Our house is in the Czech village of Ravensca, in Banat. We are renovating it little by little. Aunt Johana appears at the window. She stops by from time to time after the service to say hello, to tell us what’s new in the village. Aunt Johana is dressed nicely for the service, but she’s not wearing a traditional dress. The dress is only worn on special occasions. With Aunt Johana, as well as for the rest of the villagers, we speak Czech.
– What are you doing?
– I’ve picked some blackberries, they’re already ripe even though it’s only the middle of August. I’m baking a cake.
– Is the floor done? It’s beautiful. May you use it in good health.
– Thank you. We had to do something about it, it was just dirt with linoleum on top.
– You no longer have the wooden cooking?
– We took it out, we cook outside. It’s too hot to make a fire in the house.
Aunt Johana agrees. It’s very hot, which impacts everything, including people’s health. The animals have nowhere to graze, it hasn’t rained in a month. Then came a terrible storm which left us without electricity for a whole day, but no drops have fallen since. People are worried. If a fire started, they wouldn’t be able to put it out. They’ve been taking measures for a few years, but the water shortage is becoming an urgent problem. Over the summer, running water is turned off between nine or ten in the morning and five in the evening.
– There were very few of us in church today.
– Many have already gone back to the Czech Republic, right?
– That too. But many have also gone to Ciclova. It’s St. Mary’s, they go there on pilgrimage. I’ve been there many times. I’ve been there twelve years in a row. After I got married, I stayed with my husband’s family, and we went there every year. We started here, on foot. We sang religious songs and prayed to God, all the way there.
– It’s a long way to Ciclova though.
– It’s about sixty kilometres on foot. We left very early in the morning. We walked to Șopotu Nou. At the red cross we turned right, we walked through meadows and forests towards Sazca Montană. There we made a short stop. The next day we went up, towards Slatina. We arrived in time for the evening service. We met the Czechs from the surrounding villages, there were many of us. We spent the night there and the next day we went home. Night would catch us on the road. But we were close to other villages. Some spent several days on the road.
In Ciclova Montană, formerly Ciclova Germană, there is the St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, now a heritage building. The earliest mention is from 1713 when the chapel was built by settlers from Tyrol; the first church dates from 1727. The church is located on Mount Rol, on Călugărului (Monk) Valley. Besides the church, there is also a hermitage there. Every year, on the Solemn Ascension of the Blessed Virgin Mary with her body and soul to Heaven, Ciclova is the place where – according to the old tradition – hundreds of faithful Czech pilgrims arrive from all over Romania.
This Sunday a few families from the village will go there by car, as they do every year. We decided to go along. And the boys arrived from the village centre with good news:
– Mummy, Mummy, cries my child as he clutched the doorknob and struggles to push the big wooden gate, I have a surprise, you know who’s coming with us? Grandpa Johan! Hooray!
We leave in the afternoon. Most of the villagers are already there. We pick up the neighbours’ child who didn’t have room in their car and Grandpa Johan. He is happy. He has packed his backpack, his wife packed him a Czech cake, as she calls it, water, a bottle of țuică for the return trip. Although we are not walking, the road is long. It takes about two hours by car to get there.
Grandpa Johan is a man of many stories and jokes. We know we’re not going to get bored with him, he has a story for every place we pass through. He’s lived a lot. All his life he has worked long and hard. Over 70 years old now, he’s worked as a miner for almost thirty years and has taken care of his household in the village all his life. You don’t see him sitting around. He only rests on Sundays or if it’s a holiday, it’s not allowed to work on those days and people get to rest, visit each other, Skype with their children and grandchildren in the Czech Republic. There is a twinkle in his big blue eyes, a lively energy, and his stories are always accompanied by wide gestures and a broad smile.
Soon after we leave the village, we pass through the forest, and Grandpa Johan points to the right, leaning a little out the window:
– There used to be a mill here. Vodenica, we called it. Before there was electricity, this is where we came to grind. We used to come by carriage to be able to carry the sacks. But as soon as electricity came to the village, we stopped using this mill. I think there are still some remains, if any. It wasn’t far from the village, but when you came on foot, it took a while. And when you also had sacks to carry …
When we were young, there was a lot of walking. There were no cars like today. Even to go to Ciclova, we often walked. We didn’t take this road, we used to take shortcuts directly to Șopotu Nou, or Bușava as we call it.
One time, we carried a cross with us, the one walking in front carried it, it was decorated with flowers. I carried it on my back. It was as big as you (pointing at my partner who is almost two meters tall). We ran with it and suddenly: bam! I fell down and dropped it! My, how they scolded me and pulled my ears!
Grandpa Johan tells us of how they used to sing religious songs on the way to Ciclova and end up talking about traditional songs and dances. Grandpa can sing and still remembers many songs, but he often misses some lyrics. He says he should sing more often.
– Above where you live, there used to be a pub, that’s where we used to go and dance. Elderly women taught me to dance. One of them took me to the dancefloor and that was it, I had to learn. There were a lot of people in the village back then, we had musicians. There was singing, there was dancing. The next time Terka Šubrtová comes from the Czech Republic, we’ll teach you our songs. She remembers them well.
With the old song U nás na Rovensku (At our place in Ravensca), he manages to put our child to sleep. He’s happy, so are we. A few kilometres from Bozovici he shows us the hills where he used to go hunting, he tells of adventures involving the boys there. At some point, he tells us a legend or maybe a sophisticated linguistic joke:
– When the Czechs came here two centuries ago, this is where they wanted to settle. Higher up, on the hill. But the people of Bozovici didn’t want them there. A Czech got into a fight there with a Romanian and the Czech killed the Romanian. They asked him what happened, and the Czech says, I beat him until I killed him.
In Czech it’s Jsem ho zabil! Jsem ho zabil.
And as he kept repeating that sentence in Czech, they’ve called this place La Zabel in Romanian.
Up the hill there are some really big Mirabelle plums, you could make so much țuică!
There used to be a lot of wild animals too, but now they are gone. They’ve hunted them all… No reason to go there anymore.
We arrive at Ciclova Montană around five, and the parking lot is already full of cars. I can barely find a spot. He hasn’t even got out of the car yet, and Grandpa Johan is already greeting people from other villages. I spot a few familiar faces myself. We get out of the car. Everybody is speaking Czech. In a small park, my boy plays with a little blonde girl with pigtails. Her grandfather speaks Czech to her, she answers in Romanian. This is typical of children from mixed families or families who have moved from Czech villages to Romanian speaking places.
Perched atop a rocky hill, the monastery casts a romantic aura over the village and the surrounding landscape. We climb the hill to the monastery. The road is full of people, we talk to some of them. Grandpa Johan knows a lot of people, he is happy to see them. He even phoned some of them to let them know he was coming. In their conversations, you can tell there is a lot respect, but also a reverence related to the pilgrimage and the importance of faith in their lives.
Twenty-four people have set off from Eibenthal to Ciclova on foot. It took them three days. Twenty-one of them reached their destination. It’s obvious that some of them can barely walk, but as they say, there is satisfaction in getting there on foot. They sang religious songs like in the old days and when they went up the hill they prayed. Some of them are preparing to sleep in the church, then stay for the morning Mass and the devotion of the Way of the Cross on Calvary Hill.
Tonight’s service is held in Czech and Romanian. Depending on the speaker, people have no trouble understanding either. There is a lot of singing in unison, everyone sings, from young children to old people. After the service, some of the people head for their cars. All of them have a long drive back to their village. They come from Gârnic, Bigăr, Ravensca, Eibenthal, Șumița, Sfânta Elena, as well as from Orșova, Eșelnița, Moldova Nouă, Caransebeș or Timișoara.
On the way back, we tell more stories. Stories that have been collected in a lifetime.
– In the past, we didn’t use to go home in the evening. We stayed overnight, slept at people, in the hay or directly in the church. People would give us something to eat, we would give them some money in return, and after the morning service, that’s when we would go back. It has been a long time since I last walked, I was not yet married. It was a joy to do that, just like it is today.
It’s beautiful at Ciclova. A mass that replenishes the soul.
You get to see people and you hope to see each other the next year. But that’s not for us to decide, that’s none of our business. Someone else is in charge.
It’s eleven o’clock in the evening and we’re arriving back in the village. The neighbours’ child has been silent the entire journey, but he listened very carefully to Grandpa Johan. My partner drops us off home, then he has to go pick up some friends who are coming from the Czech Republic and arriving in Băile Herculane at one o’clock in the morning. Grandpa Johan is worried and insists on going with him.
– I’ll tell you more stories on the way! To make sure you don’t fall asleep at the wheel!
Photo credit: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu