In October 2016 we flew from southern England to Romania.
Romania is a big country by European standards and not one to see by public transport if time is limited. So to travel beyond Bucharest we hired a car and drove northwest to Brașov and on to Sighisiora, before looping southwest to Sibiu (European capital of culture 2007) and southeast through the Transylvanian Alps to Curtea de Arges on our way back to Bucharest.
Driving in Romania was interesting. There are some quite good motorways once out of the suburbs of Bucharest, where traffic lights are interminable trams rumble noisily, trolley-busses stop and start and progress can be slow. In the countryside road surfaces are variable and the roads mostly narrow. This does not slow the locals who seem to ignore speed limits making it necessary to keep up to avoid holding up traffic.
Initially the TomTom (GPS navigation device) that we now carry with us from OZ, thought we were still in England. When it asked if we wanted to avoid ferries I answered 'yes' and was told there was no available route to Bucharest - where I was standing at the time. Not until I asked for the nearest petrol station did it relocate itself. I thought it was an amusing TomTom idiosyncrasy. From then on it was invaluable.
We saw no signs advertising lions in Romania, like those pointing to Longleat during our recent sojourn in Southern England, but our guide-book represented the local bears as being just as dangerous.
The next most dangerous thing in Romania is Dracula, who is represented in all the tourist areas in myth and legend. That he was the imaginary character of Abraham 'Bram' Stoker, an Irishman writing a novel in the British Library in London, is immaterial to the tourist potential of the story. To give the fictional story some semblance of real world plausibility Dracula is said to be based on the real life 15th century Romanian aristocrat and soldier Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, a member of the House of Drăculești and therefore known as Vlad Drăculea.
Vlad III was better known as Vlad the Impaler for mounting his captured enemies vertically on a spike up through their body. This was at the time of the Crusades when such behaviour was not unusual and Vlad, a Christian knight, had much vaunted success against the Ottoman Turks, according to graphic recreations, skewering quite a few. But there is nothing whatever to associate him with the drinking of blood - unless it was at mass.
Romania is a big country and the circular 'tourist' route we took was largely within the picturesque Transylvanian region that also happens to be the wealthiest and best educated part of the Country.
Much of Transylvania seems 'first world' with well tended houses and well-dressed healthy-looking people going about their business. Yet at regular intervals this image is contradicted by poor local farmers out on the roads with carts and other horse-drawn vehicles, occasionally tipped over in a ditch.
But these farmers are fortunate compared to the people who walk for miles. These very poor people are in contrast to the generally late model German and French cars sharing the road with them.
Romania has one of the fastest economic growth rates in Europe (off a low base) and low rates of unemployment, yet the new wealth is evidently quite uneven in this once communist country.
Some villages, are obviously poor and decrepit with no evident services like electricity. Şaroş pe Târnave, in the pictures below, is a paradise compared to others we saw but didn't approach.
Şaroş pe Târnave - Romania
Wealthier villages in this region closely line the roads in a side-by-side distinctive Romanian style, each with a large door or carriage entrance giving into an internal courtyard.
Farming seems to be efficient. Large fields of corn are commonplace but we also saw hops being grown on a large scale. Houses on larger rural properties are well-appointed, evidently prosperous, an Audi or BMW parked alongside modern tractors and farming equipment.
Perhaps, like me, Romania has been a bit of an enigma to you? This mystery has been partly due to one off the most convoluted and complex political histories in the world.
Modern Romania consists of a number of more ancient kingdoms or principalities that have been fought over ever since the advent of agriculture when wealth came to be synonymous with the possession of good farmland. In the 20th century oil was added to the list of Romania's riches.
Competing empires for these lands included: the Roman; the Byzantine; the Ottoman; the Austro-Hungarian; the Russian; the Napoleonic; and the German. Historians might list several more (Swedes, Vikings?). There are numerous cultural remnants of these struggles and the language is interesting for its familiar words from Latin and German dotted through it, like raisins in a bun.
Principal among these older kingdoms in the region were the lands of Wallachia and Moldavia, later joined by Transylvania. But the borders of 'Romania' have been fluid, incorporating and excluding neighbouring lands as the local balance of power and influence waxed and waned in the adjoining empires. The present country dates back to 1859 but since that time it's boarders have been fluid and it has undergone some big changes in government.
By User:Scooter20 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In the early 19th century the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia were 'suzerains' (self governing vassals) of the Ottoman Empire and were ruled by local princes or 'domitors'. But in 1862 a single prince, Alexandru Ioan Cuza, became domitor of both principalities, uniting them in what was to become Romania. Four years later another, Prince Carol, sized power in a palace coup d'état.
Thus in 1866 the first Constitution of Romania enshrined Prince Carol as ruler. The throne was made an hereditary office to be held by the male descendants of Carol. Legislative power was to be exercised by the Prince and Parliament (composed of an Assembly of Deputies and a Senate), while executive power was entrusted to the Prince, who exercised it through his ministers.
Voters were divided into colleges based on their wealth and social origins. The Prince's constitutional powers were similar to those of a monarch in contemporary constitutional monarchies. Citizens' rights enshrined in the Constitution included the freedoms: of conscience; of the press; of assembly; of religion; equality before the law, regardless of class; individual liberty; and the inviolability of the home. Capital punishment was abolished in peacetime. Yet, the Romanian Orthodox Church was declared 'the dominant religion' of the Romanian state. And despite the freedoms of religion and of conscience, non-Christians, like Jews, could not become citizens and therefore, like those other strange creatures, women, couldn't vote.
This Constitution was given full legitimacy in 1881, when Romania was declared an independent country, with King Carol I as ruler, in the Treaty of Berlin, after the Ottoman Empire was defeated in the Russo-Turkish War of 1878.
King Carol ruled for 33 years but then died, as do we all. In this case he ceased to be in October 1914, three months into the First World War (WW1). He left no direct heirs and so a nephew, Ferdinand, together with his influential English consort, Princess Marie of Edinburgh, ascended to the throne.
After initial alliance with pre-revolutionary Russia, Romania, which has strategically important oilfields, was forced into neutrality, but effectively in support of Germany, . At war's end in 1918, taking advantage of the power vacuum created by the Armistice, the county was amalgamated with Transylvania, Eastern Moldavia (Bessarabia), and Bukovina. Ferdinand got the credit and was nicknamed: Intregitorul, the unifier. In celebration, in 1921 Italy gave the new expanded country five copies of the 'Capitoline Wolf' to place in strategic locations to represent the new Romanian unity and their 'Latinity'. This is a bronze statue, of the Roman she-wolf with Romulus and Remus, suckling beneath her that was thought, at the time, to date back to the 5th century BCE *.
During the interwar period Romania remained a constitutional monarchy and some progress was made towards improving the life of the peasants, who made up the vast majority of the population, and Romania embraced industrialisation, particularly in armaments. Meanwhile the new federation immediately went to war again, this time to oust the Bolsheviks from Hungary.
In 1927 Ferdinand I died to be succeeded by his young grandson Michael I. Then 1930 as a result of parliamentary changes Michael was obliged to abdicate in favour of his father, Carol II. In 1938, in the lead up to the Second World War (WW2), Carol II assumed total power as 'Royal Dictator'.
* For those of you unaware, in legend Romulus and Remus were the founders of Rome. They were twin boys, born of a vestal virgin who had been inseminated by the God Mars. The king, fearing them as possible rivals, had them 'exposed' to die by the Tiber. But with the intervention of Tiberinus, the God of the river, they were suckled by a she-wolf and thus saved to found the city. These myths, that are represented on Roman coins as early as 269 BCE, were thus in general circulation long before the similar, and probably derivative, Christian myths.
When WW2 broke out in 1939 Carol had declared neutrality. But as Romania's borders crumbled and its allies were defeated the local Fascists quickly gained support. In 1940 there was a popular uprising against Carol and the Romanian Fascists sized power. Romania became a fascist dictatorship, under Mareșal Ion Antonescu and joined the Axis, with Germany and Italy. Romanian troops played a major role in Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, where 370,000 were killed. Romanian troops and the Romanian dictatorship also assisted in the holocaust against the Jews abroad but mostly against the Romani at home. See the Appendix to this article.
Towards the end of World War 2, the Fascist dictatorship was defeated by the Allies and the Constitutional Monarchy, with King Michael I at its head, was briefly reinstated. But in 1947 the king was forced to abdicate under Russian pressure and the Communist Party took control. With that Romania became part of the Warsaw pact. After a decade under tight Russian control, Romania began a separatist policy. So that by 1968 Romania was condemning the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. But this was posturing for world attention during the cold war. Romania had escaped from a wartime Fascist dictator and Russian hegemony only to be captured by the increasingly bizarre Communist dictator: Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena. Under this government the economy ground to a halt and widespread poverty ensued.
The Ceaușescu dictatorship ended with the Romanian Revolution of 1989, leading to elections in 1990 and a new constitution a year later.
Henceforth the President was to be democratically elected in two rounds for a maximum of two four (now five) year terms. Candidates cannot be members of any political party. As in the United States the President has similar powers to those of the former kings but as in the Westminster System must now act in consultation with a democratically elected bicameral Parliament (of 136 Senators and 329 Deputies) on the advice of a cabinet of Ministers, led by the Prime Minister. Suffrage includes all citizens 18 years and over. Voting is not compulsory.
Again thumbing its nose at Russia, Romania joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2007 and the European Union (EC) in 2007.
Nevertheless Romania has not become a member of the European Monetary Union, the Euro zone. The The Romanian leu (lion) - plural lei - is subdivided into 100 bani (also meaning money). In August 2016 we got about 3 lei to the A$. This floating currency has allowed Romania to be competitive in Europe and it presently has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the EC. But the floating currency means that wages are relatively low and freedom of travel within the EC has allowed Romanians to take better paid jobs in the UK. This has been one of the forces behind the BREXIT movement in England.
Fortunes have changed quite dramatically across this country. In recent times, there were riots during the Global Economic Crisis. But then the economy began to recover and Romania is enjoying rapid growth again, as evidenced by: the number of late model German cars on the roads; diners in street cafés; evident rural prosperity; infrastructure projects underway; and private urban renewal in Bucharest.
Bucharest is a fine old city in decay, like an aging courtesan. For me Bucharest is best represented by its trams. These are great grey thundering monsters that clank heavily and slowly down the streets with no apparent suspension, unlike modern trams elsewhere that glide almost silently along. They are fundamentally shabby yet practical and somehow confident, in a tank-like way, as they force their passage through the unruly traffic.
The hotel we stayed in in Bucharest was once a mansion and has been scrupulously restored to its former glory. It is not an insignificant establishment. But alarmingly the taxi driver bringing us from the airport could not find it on his GPS. When I looked at Google Street View the reason became evident. In July 2014, when the images were captured, the Grand Boutique Hotel was still a construction site, like the similarly grand building on the corner of Strada Negustori that is now undergoing renovation.
Thus Bucharest, with a population of just 1.9 million that feels bigger because of its grand old semi-vacant buildings, is slowly recovering some of its former glory. But it's off a low base - there's a long way to go.
In Ceaușescu's time a large part of the old city was demolished to build a grand boulevard, headed by the vast Parliament building and lined with matching office blocks. The Palace of the Parliament is the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon and the fourth largest building of any kind. We got to see it on our second visit as foreign visitors have to surrender their passport and be accompanied at all times but we had left them in the hotel first time around. We didn't get to visit all eleven hundred rooms nor even either of the two parliamentary chambers but we did see several of the vast halls part of the rooftop and even a cellar. Photographs were prohibited inside.
Ceaușescu's grand boulevard from the Palace of the Parliament balcony
To achieve this he knocked down a good deal of he oldest part of the city which leaves a picturesque remainder that has become a walking shopping/dining precinct. It's adjacent to the university and museums and is quite bohemian with several conspicuous brothels. Local people there, or were some tourists, looked well dressed and prosperous as they promenaded past the Irish Pub or café we happened to be eating or drinking at.
One of several Irish Pubs in the Old City
At the National Museum of Romanian History the principal reference to recent history is the trappings of monarchy, the crown jewels and so on. The Roman occupation also receives a good deal of attention, particularly the time of Trajan whose column is reproduced in plaster. I was a bit bemused as to what it's doing here. It's very lonely as the only exhibit of this genre. The plaster replicas of this column in Rome item occupy most of the building - a collection of one. It's not unique there is similar plaster copy, among thousands of exhibits, in the V&A in London and of course the one in Rome, so I suppose this has been singled out to benefit Romanian scholars of Roman history. A controversial post-modern bronze statue of Trajan stands on the steps outside and passers-by keep his penis bright with frequent fondling.
Trajan on the steps
In addition to trams and trolleybuses, Bucharest also boasts a metro dating from the Ceaușescu era, with four lines and 51 stations. More are planned.
There is a lot to see around Bucharest from Roman ruins to various churches and museums.
We didn't use the public transport but walked to the nearby old-city or used cabs further afield. This was a lesson in itself, as the cab drivers are skilled at exploiting tourists with two quite different fee scales and are best hired by the concierge at one's hotel. As mentioned above we also hired a car and I had the fun of driving in and out of the city.
Using the car we headed to Brașov 270km to the north, enjoying the motorway that extends for a good part of the way.
Near Brașov we saw the first of Transylvania's many fortified Saxon towns and churches. In the twelfth century the Kings of Hungary settled German colonists in the area against the expansion of the Ottomans and Tartars (Turkic Muslims). From the 13th to 16th centuries there around 300 such Christian fortifications were constructed against these 'heathen hordes' that had overrun much of what today is modern Romania. There remain 130, once Saxon, towns and villages in the Transylvania region each with a fortified church.
Obviously the fortified churches were originally Roman Catholic but with the Protestant Reformation they seemingly universally saw the error of their theological ways and adopted Lutheran theology. They remain so today. Their congregations have dwindled over the ages and now a small minority adhere to the Lutheran religion while the great majority of modern Romanians now follow the Eastern (Romanian Orthodox) Rite. Nevertheless the Saxon churches are significant points of interest on the tourist agenda and a number have world heritage listing.
They are also fascinating reminders of the mega-litres of blood that have been shed in the name of conflicting human imaginative conceptions of the divine.
Bucharest is the only large city in Romania. Regional cities are substantially smaller. Brașov, is among these yet it is the largest city in the Transylvania region and very close to the geographic centre of modern Romania. As a comparison, at just over 250,000 people, Brașov is similar in population and size to Hobart (Tasmania), Buffalo (NY) or Plymouth (England).
Brașov is one of the highest towns in Romania and the mountain setting is picturesque. The old town in particular is well maintained/restored and is very picturesque.
In summer people were enjoying an alfresco atmosphere with many restaurants spilling out into the main walking street.
At one end of this street is the main administrative area of the town and the other ends in a pleasant square, Piața Sfatului, abutting the famous Black Church, an historic Saxon/Lutheran cathedral, one of the largest in Europe, that has dominated the city since the 15th century, when it was known as the Roman Catholic Church of St Mary, changing denominations and name with the Protestant revolution.
During the various historical turmoils, outlined above, Transylvania, once part of the Roman Empire, passed between Bulgaria, Hungary and modern Romania.
At one time the entire old city of Brașov was heavily fortified against the Muslims and other potential enemies and several of the original gates, in the city wall, remain in tact.
As in other Romanian and German fortified cities: manning; maintaining; and defending gates was the responsibility of various town guilds, in this case: tailor's; weavers; and blacksmiths. Brașov also claims to have the narrowest street in Europe - probably contentious as this would seem to be an easy thing to achieve. Nevertheless the old streets are narrow. So there is an elaborate one-way system that affords the naive driver a gratuitous tour of the town, combined with a strong feeling of déjà vu. There is metered parking that we seemed to master (as no fine ensued) but we soon discovered a shopping mall (with free car parking for shoppers) within easy walking distance of the old town centre and soon learned the convoluted way to navigate to and from our accommodation. This was a B&B in the rather ordinary suburbs that offered secure off the street parking and also turned out to be quite comfortable with a good breakfast.
The shopping mall also had a convenient supermarket for wine and cheese, complementing several more regular meals in the relatively inexpensive restaurants of the old town where we could enjoy the passing throng. As in other countries in central Europe (Russia; Poland; Hungary; Germany of course) many people in Romania are, to our eyes, physically attractive.
40 km to the south west of Brașov is the famous Bran Castle. On the way we passed Râșnov Citadel. Built in the 13th century this Medieval fort provided protection to local Christians against assorted Muslims. It was unsuccessfully besieged by both the Tatar 'Golden Horde' in 1335; then by the Ottomans in 1421. Eventually becoming of less strategic significance at one time it was ravaged by fire and lay in ruins until, in 1956, it was restored by the Communists as an historic monument and landmark.
Due to its wonderfully strategic location this hill had been fortified since prehistoric times.
Bran is supposed to be just 40 minutes driving time but the local roads, under construction or repair, are something of a challenge, as was getting a parking spot in the otherwise pretty town that is almost totally given over to the Dracula theme in a similar way to Disneyland's enthusiasm for Mickey Mouse. There was a very long queue for tickets that gave Wendy plenty of time to explore the many souvenir stalls as I moved ponderously towards the ticket window.
Bran Castle has only a tenuous association with Vlad III who passed through the valley and may have stayed briefly at the 14th century fort on the site. And the castle has nothing to do with the original Dracula story, as it is not the setting Bram Stoker had in mind for Dracula's castle. But fortuitously for the tourist industry, various movie and spin-off versions of Dracula have chosen Bran Castle as the setting for the story. Serendipitously Stoker's pen name was also 'Bram'.
Once tourists get past the initial Dracula-fest they discover that it's a museum preserving the history of the later Romanian royals. Originally built as a fort it was extensively updated in the early 20th century and adopted as the favourite home of Queen Marie, the wife of King Ferdinand I of Romania.
The history of the family, an expurgated version of which can be found on information boards around the castle, reads like a bodice-ripping pot-boiler that is much more interesting than Dracula for being real.
A modern fairytale
Once upon a time there was a beautiful, powerful and libidinous queen who lived in a magical castle in Romania.
She was Beautiful Queen Marie (English born: Princess Marie of Edinburgh) and people said she was the true ruler of the land as she had been seen to dominate her husband: Weak King Ferdinand.
Illustrating this apparent distain for Weak King Ferdinand she took several lovers (perhaps she was a role model for her distant antecedent, Princess Diana). She gave birth to six children, the two youngest of whom were said not to be Ferdinand's.
When he reached a 'certain age' her eldest son, Handsome Prince Carol, having inherited, or taken instruction from, his mother's libido, went on a quest to find the most exciting girl in all the land. He tried this one and that without success, leaving in his wake a stream of weeping girls; bulging and bereft.
Just when his quest seemed hopeless Handsome Prince Carol discovered Beautiful Zizi Lambrino. This time his slipper fitted her perfectly. He was 25 and she was 20. As in all good fairy tales, they fell instantly in love and were married, with much rejoicing among their set.
I know what you're thinking. This is a different story.
Yet Beautiful Zizi Lambrino was almost as humble as Cinderella. She was the daughter of a mere army officer, of the kind preferred by the Queen's future cousin.
As a result of this accident of birth she was unacceptably common to Handsome Prince Carol's parents. King Ferdinand was no doubt encouraged in this rejection of their new daughter-in-law by Beautiful (but perhaps a little evil) Queen Marie, who was now auditioning for Disney's Sleeping Beauty.
So on the eve of the birth of the couple's first baby, the baby's grandfather, Compliant King Ferdinand, annulled Carol and Zizi's marriage, making the new baby illegitimate, thus denying a common army officer's progeny any part in the succession.
Initially, in the real world, the happy couple ignored the silly annulment but soon Nasty King Ferdinand prevailed and Zizi was exiled to Paris on a pension with her baby.
Poor Little Carol Lambrino had somewhat bizarrely and certainly uniquely been rendered illegitimate in-utero.
In 1927 King Ferdinand died but due to Handsome Prince Carol's playboy reputation and his publicly flaunting his new mistress, who was previously married and had a Jewish mother, he was forced to abdicate in favour of his second son Michael, by his second wife.
Unlike Beautiful Zizi Lambrino his second, multiply jilted wife, was his cousin, Helen of Greece and Denmark. Both of them were descended from Queen Victoria; Empress of India; Queen of Great Britain & Northern Ireland and the Dominions, so she was OK.
Michael, their son, became Michael I of Romania and as he was still a child a Regency was established.
Yet out in the real world, inexorably, Europe was heading towards WW2, so after just three years the Regency failed.
Thus in 1930 the 'playboy prince', Handsome Prince Carol, at last ascended the throne as King Carol II of Romania. Hooray!
But not everyone cheered, as King Carol II he was getting just too big for his boots. So a decade later in the turmoil of the times King Carol was obliged to abdicate yet again in favour of Michael I.
And so it is when the real world impinges on a fairytale one. It gets confusing.
Back to the fairytale and our poor little disinherited prince.
At first, despite Poor Disinherited Carol Lambrino's ambiguous status, his repeatedly disenfranchised father, continued to acknowledge him as his son.
But as he got older Poor Disinherited Carol Lambrino became an embarrassment. So he joined the gaggle of assorted dispossessed princes and princesses that wandered aimlessly around the resorts of Europe; marrying social-climbing American heiresses and enjoying 'La Dolce Vita'.
Many of these too had sprung distantly from the fecund womb of the Little Empress, Queen Victoria, at the vigorous Guelphic loins of her consort: Prince Albert The Good.
When the 'playboy prince' died in 1953 Poor Carol Lambrino went to court and was able to argue legitimacy and to partially restore his personal coffers by laying claim to some of the family estates in France, as those in Romania had been confiscated.
This was because back in the real world, half-brother Michael had been deposed a second time, by the Communists in 1947. Yet, although no longer king, Michael had escaped the brutal fate of his Russian cousins or that of the last Emperor of China.
In a twist of fate Poor Carol Lambrino's parent's marriage annulment had been ruled invalid when tested in court. Thus the marriage was never properly annulled and Handsome Prince Carol's second marriage was bigamous. So it is Poor Carol Lambrino's half brother, Twice Deposed Michael I of Romania who is the illegitimate one.
Poor Carol Lambrino eventually settled in Parsons Green, the 'aristocratic' area of Fulham, London, where, having already divorced one American heiress, he lived quietly with his English third wife until he died in 2006.
He is outlived by his technically illegitimate half-brother Michael who is still extant and living in Romania (aged 94 in 2016).
Given the family vicissitudes, and the tribulations of the Romanian people in general, as he lived comfortably in exile, it was Poor Disinherited Carol Lambrino who was fortunate.
As Pangloss had explained to Candide, 'for all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds'.
And so he lived happily ever after - well until 2006 anyway.
Now isn't that much more interesting than a Dracula t-shirt?
As Bran is presently decorated it seemes that the domestic arrangements were quite modest, even middle class. Thus Bran Castle is represented as a country retreat for the royals.
Yet there was a suite of torture equipment, that has somehow joined the furnishings. As I can't see Ferdinand, Marie or any of the Carol's needing an Iron Maiden or a rack on a daily basis, nor can I imagine that they considered them to be appropriate items of interior decoration or children's playthings I took this to indicate that the furnishings were generally inauthentic.
For Dracula on the other hand...
On the way back to town there is a mock-up of an historic village in which various crafts people ply their wears. It serves to underline how far this society has come since not so long ago when Romanians were divided into kings, of dubious ancestry, on the hill, and peasants below. Perhaps the village is placed there to help us, descending from the castle, feel less put-out by our relative ancestral-deprivation.
While Wendy hit the shops for a final binge I was able to contemplate such things over a good cup of coffee and a cake at one of the town's numerous cafés and restaurants. The weather helped. It was fine and sunny yet temperate. I realised that I was fortunate to have the advantages of my birth and life circumstances that led me to be able to visit this place and others like it around the globe and that I didn't envy those now defunct royals one iota.
On balance it had turned out to be a very pleasant way to spend a day. So if you find yourself in Brașov I can recommend a day trip out to Bran, despite a potential overdose of Dracula.
From Brașov we drove to Sighisoara, passing several fortified churches and towns. We stopped at one that was open for a small entrance fee.
Another was too well fortified to get into so we strolled around the periphery. Some youths were taking an interest in our car. It had our luggage in its boot so I was a bit concerned about leaving it unattended until the local police patrol turned up and the young men evaporated into the local village. I have no evidence whatsoever that they were up to no good. Probably they were just hanging out, as young men do worldwide.
Sighișoara is a city on the Târnava Mare River in Mureș County, Romania. Located in the historic region of Transylvania, Sighișoara has a population of 28,100
Having the car played a part in our choice of accommodation. This had both advantages - we could be out of the town centre - and disadvantages - hotels we chose must offer parking.
On seeing the hotel in Sighișoara my heart sank. It was barely off the main road through town and the unattended entrance looked like the office of a travel agent. What one star accommodation could possibly be out-back. We couldn't raise anyone it was afterhours on a Sunday. Eventually a young woman appeared. Yes, I could park the car in their gated parking area at the end of the block. I left the bags with Wendy. When I got back and saw the room my spirits lifted. It was large spotless and recently renovated with a modern on-suite and kitchenette. Even a rustic view out the back.
Sighișoara - our rustic view out the back
The old medieval fortified town was a few minutes walk away and in another direction, along the river, a bridge provided a fine picturesque outlook along the river and access to the large Orthodox Cathedral, Biserica Sfânta Treime, with its dome looking more Roman than Greek. But inside clearly Orthodox.
As in other towns in Transylvania the historic church above the old town is Saxon and now Lutheran. To reach is is quite a climb and then you can descend through the very large graveyard, largely the burial place of German speaking residents, to judge by the inscriptions, all 'laid to rest' in expectation of the Second Coming.
The old town is fascinating. It contains the only inhabited medieval fortress in Europe. The structure now called the clock-tower was obviously once the 'keep'. It protects the main gate, approached up a steep hill. It's massive and is separately fortified, with gun embrasures on all four sides. No use sneaking around behind.
It's now the City History Museum and provides excellent panoramic views of the town.
Sighișoara - from the clock-tower
Since the 17th century its featured a clock complete with iron shafts driving little carousels of rotating figures when it chimes. At different times it's served as a prison and there is a small torture museum in the dungeon cell dating back to the Holy Roman Empire no doubt, as have others we have seen around Europe. During that period the law was draconian and was enforced by torture, dismemberments and threats of those punishments.
As already mentioned in Brașov, the gates and towers along the town's defences were the responsibilities of the town's guilds. In this case: butchers; tinsmiths; tailors; shoemakers; rope-makers; tanners and furriers. Most of these fortifications survive, providing additional medieval ambiance.
The old town quite compact and from a defensive point of view extremely well designed. The walls skirt higher ground, the nose of a substantial ridge pointing to the river, around which are fertile flats that would have provided food and materials to feed the town's commerce.
As we explored the area we kept coming across a bride and groom having their wedding photographs taken. A little bit of local colour.
From Sighișoara we drove to Sibiu (European capital of culture 2007) stopping at two more fortified Saxon churches and for lunch on the way.
|Sibiu (German: Hermannstadt; Hungarian: Nagyszeben) population of 147,250 is located some 215 km (134 mi) north-west of Bucharest, on the Cibin River, a tributary of the river Olt.
Formerly the centre of the Transylvanian Saxons, between 1692 and 1791 and 1849 to 1865 Sibiu was the capital of the Principality of Transylvania. Until 1920 it belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary.
Sibiu is one of the most important cultural centres of Romania.
In 2007 Sibiu was designated the European Capital of Culture (changes annually); and was ranked as one of Europe's "most idyllic places to live".
Driving into Sibiu was interesting. Out hotel was in the middle of the old city which is approached through a steeply rising cutting that has the aspect of a tunnel due to a bridge across it half way up. The cutting to the old city is protected by boom gates, like a car park, which is essentially what it is. Once in, we paid for parking and the hotel provided a dashboard notice so that we could park for the duration of out stay.
The town was living up to its cultural reputation. Not far from out hotel in the main square a large stage was setup for a dance show that was to be televised that evening. Rehearsals went on through much of our second day there.
Sibiu was good for exercise. Vehicle traffic is restricted and we had a good parking spot so that we spent our time walking. Similarly the hotel in this heritage part of town, lacked lifts and so we had to carry our heavy bags up to the top floor and along lengthy corridors. Fortunately the hotel was recently renovated so the room, with a view out to the city, was fresh, well decorated with an excellent bed and good linen. Similarly the bathroom was modern with plenty of hot water and ample towels - all one needs in an hotel.
There was an amusing incident in one of the corridors where the staff were attempting to fold a portable cot. Seeing what they were doing wrong as we approached I went to their aid, demonstrating the folding and unfolding trick. The young women were very grateful and surprised that an 'older' man knew how to do this. "Opa, Grandfather," I explained to their great amusement, "It's my job at home".
In the square below there were numerous restaurants and cafés, spilling out under marquees, and a lot of day tourists. A shopping street (Strada Nicolae Bălcescuwith), with Zara and similar shrines to consumerism, runs away to the south west. This left unsatisfied Wendy's shopaholic cravings as I went looking for more ancient interests.
There are two major churches in the middle of Sibiu. The largest is the Saxon cathedral - obviously now the Lutheran Cathedral of Saint Mary.
As in other Saxon churches there are memorials to fallen soldiers in both world wars. In the Lutheran Cathedral in Sibiu there is an interesting in memorial that reads:
Sie starben im kampf fur volk und vaterland
Thus, as we are well aware, both sides in the Great War appealed to the same Saviour when encouraging young men to make the same sacrifice 'fur volk und vaterland'.
The other is the Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, that you can see in the Large Square photo above. I hadn't expected that. It's quite plain on the outside, so at first I imagined that it too was Lutheran, which seemed an excess given the large cathedral nearby. But I correctly decided that it was unlikely to be Eastern orthodox, as 81% of Romanians are today.
Like those in St Petersburg this church became a museum and in 1948 under the Communists. So at that time a statue of St. Nepomuk, that had stood in the Large Square, was removed to the churchyard. In contrast to it's plain exterior, inside it's richly decorated with colourful Moorish columns, frescos, gold framed sacred images, gold altarpiece and leaded pictorial window in Viennese baroque style.
How on earth did it get here?
It illustrates another chapter in Romanian history. It was built when Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the mid 18th century. The Viennese Jesuits built the church to rival the Protestants; and also inaugurated a Jesuit Convent, now the parish house. They were also responsible for the statue of St. Nepomuk.
During the Communist period religious worship was suppressed so that when it was again permitted the Eastern church revived to a spectacular degree, as it has in Russia. As a result Romania is now one of the most religious countries in Europe but almost entirely Romanian Orthodox and neither of these western churches appears to have a huge congregation. So both still function, mainly, as museums and charge for entry, like most other cathedrals and large churches in Europe these days.
Wendy soon tired of shopping and together we explored the rest of the old town, giving the natural history museum a miss on this occasion. Unlike Poland Romania escaped the worst ravages of the twentieth century wars, so the walls of Sibiu are still largely in tact. There are three distinct stages of fortifications. Set back from the most solid and recent of these is a series of older defensive towers, which like those in other European cities we have seen, were each supported by one of the town's guilds. Thus there are the Potter's tower, the Carpenter's Tower, the Cooper's Tower and so on.
That evening Cântecele Munţilor the International Folklore Festival - Songs of the Mountains was televised, thanks to the Center for Preservation and Promotion of Traditional Culture. We joined the throng then ate in one of the overlooking cafés. You can even see it on YouTube - which goes to show that TV and quick edits can improve almost anything - even grass growing becomes exciting:
The following day after a relaxing breakfast we said our farewells to pleasant Sibiu and headed southeast through the Transylvanian Alps to Curtea de Arges.
|Curtea de Argeș population 27,360 is on the right bank of the Argeş River, where it flows through a valley of the lower Carpathians (the Făgăraș Mountains).
One of the oldest towns in Wallachia, in the 13th century Curtea de Argeș was the capital of a small local state which was the start of the unification of the lands south of the Carpathians.
Curtea de Arges is a small, fairly ordinary, town but has several historical sites in town and in the vicinity.
Curtea de Arges
Chief among these is the Argeș Monastery but in the town itself there is an even older historic church, the 14th century San Nicoara Church, set in the grounds of the now ruined Royal Court, dating from the 13th century.
It's now a somewhat nondescript field in which two cellars of the Court are preserved. And what's more, the Court was once inhabited by - you guessed - Vlad III, the Impaler (Vlad Dracula) who was Voivode (or prince) of Wallachia, of which Curtea de Arges was the principal city on three occasions in the fifteenth century.
And you thought we had seen the last of Dracula.
But no, a little way out of town on a canyon formed by the Argeș River valley is Poenari Castle or Citadel a fort associated with Vlad. Access to the citadel is made by climbing 1,480 stairs linked by upwards sloping pathways. At the top are some implements of torture and some figures impaled on tall spikes in the manner of Vlad, when fighting off the Muslims in Christ's name.
It was here that, as a result of tingling fingers, I first became aware that I might have a problem with my heart. It's fortunate that I took a couple of rest stops on the way to the top, in spite of my pride, because it's very isolated and forested with no obvious way that emergency services could access it quickly.
Amusingly it wasn't the only dice with death. Our TomTom GPS initially took us to a spot on the valley road, 400 metres vertically below the Citadel. After realising the error I drove on but could find nowhere wide enough to make a u-turn. I eventually had to make a very quick three-point turn instead on the narrow, tightly winding, road then back-track many kilometres to the footpath entrance we had already passed. It was of course clearly marked - in Romanian. The danger was Romanian drivers who are not notable for their caution or compliance with speed limits, as little shrines on the roadside attest.
Just as well we'd been to the Monastery for some vicarious soul-cleansing earlier that day!
The Argeș Monastery attracts most tourist interest and is reached by a one-way avenue of hundred year old linden trees trees, now bizarrely interspersed with supermarkets hotels and restaurants to cater for visitors, including the ubiquitous Irish Pub.
It's a thriving religious community with new buildings underway. In the grounds of the large Monastery is the spectacularly beautiful Romanian Orthodox Cathedral of Curtea de Argeș in which Kings Ferdinand and Carol I and Queens Marie of Romania; Elisabeth of Wied; and Anne of Romania are buried.
The present church was dedicated in 1886 replaces an earlier one. It had attracted a handful of tourists but was largely vacant of worshippers and seems to lack religious significance.
The nearby the Monastery building had attracted the many faithful, who move from one icon to the next in private religious observance in a way quite different to western Christian tradition. Interesting.
We had booked a B&B that although clean with a good breakfast, was close to a noisy road and well away from the centre. The promotional material claimed it was walking distance to points of interest - if you had several hours for walking past petrol stations furniture stores and shabby suburbia. As a result we had trouble finding it and when at last we did there was limited access and the woman who greeted us directed me to get closer and closer to some trees and to her garage door. Under her instructions I touched it with my bumper marking an overrider and making me cross, after driving all this way without a scratch. Fortunately a bit of spit and polish fixed the bumper. Anyway, Wendy gave them a bad Trip Adviser review and the woman got upset, claiming I'd damaged her door.
After Curtea de Arges we returned to Bucharest and briefly to the Grand Boutique Hotel, where the car was to be returned. Again they were again most accommodating, even though we were not staying the night, and organised our later trip to the airport. Unlike the B&B in Curtea de Argeș, this hotel is a definite recommendation if you ever want a nice place to stay in Bucharest.
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At just over 3% of the population, Romania has the largest Romani minority of any country; and the fifth largest Romani population in the world.
Despite the name the Romani are not indigenous to Romania.
Contrary to popular misconception these European wanderers did not originate either in Romania (Roma) or in Egypt (Gypsies).
Modern DNA and cultural studies clearly indicate that the Romani originated in India. Many of their beliefs and cultural practices are based in the Hindu Cast System, irrespective of their nominal religion, that typically reflects the prevailing religion of their host country.
Since they first appeared in Europe around a thousand years ago, deep-seated cultural differences have led to passive or active conflict between the Romani and local populations. There remains widespread prejudice against Romani across Europe sometimes resulting in expulsions, legislative action against them or even mass slaughter.
In the latest instance of genocide tens of thousands of Romani were put to death in Romania, Germany and Poland in war-time ethnic cleansing.
The Government of France has recently attracted international condemnation for expelling tens of thousands of Romani 'travellers' who had set up illegal encampments around the country.
Romani deported to Romania and Bulgaria, who agreed to sign an agreement not to return, were given €300 each, with €100 for each child.
The enmity the 'travellers' attract stems from their failure to integrate, including resisting the education of their children; and their living off the land by: illegal squatting; makeshift encampments; deception scams like fortune telling; petty theft; and prostitution. Many Romani girls fall pregnant soon after their menarche.
Recent French actions against them gained overwhelming popular support due to Romani rioting against police and causing collateral property damage.
A French woman we met in England was vitriolic against them and their 'filthy habits' in Paris, some of which she described in graphic detail. She was incredulous that we were going to Romania, where she was convinced most of the population was 'Roma'.
France to shut illegal Roma camps and deport migrants
BBC News - 29 July 2010
This Roma camp near Paris has already been cleared by police
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered 300 illegal camps of travellers and Roma to be dismantled.
People in the camps found to be living illegally in France would be expelled, he said.
The order is a response to riots last week in which travellers attacked police in a Loire Valley town after a youth was shot dead.
The government said the camps are sources of crime but critics say an ethnic minority is being singled out.
"Within the next three months, half of the illegal camps will be dismantled - camps and squats - that is to say some 300," said Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux after a special government meeting.
A statement issued by the president's office after the meeting described the illegal camps as "sources of illegal trafficking, of profoundly shocking living standards, of exploitation of children for begging, of prostitution and crime".
The meeting was called to discuss the riot in the small Loire Valley town of Saint Aignan, where dozens of travellers armed with hatchets and iron bars attacked the police station, hacked down trees and burned cars.
The riot erupted after a gendarme shot and killed a traveller who had driven through a checkpoint, officials said.
Mr Sarkozy has promised that those responsible for the violence would be "severely punished".
His office also announced that new legislation would be drafted before the end of the year that would make it easier to expel illegal Roma travellers "for reasons of public order".
There are hundreds of thousands of Roma or travelling people living in France who are part of long-established communities.
The other main Roma population is recent immigrants, many from Romania and Bulgaria, who have the right to enter France without a visa but must have work or residency permits to settle in the long-term.
Mr Hortefeux said the new measures "are not meant to stigmatise any community, regardless of who they are, but to punish illegal behaviour".
Yet across Europe many Romani have integrated. Hungary has a greater number of ethnic Romani that Romania yet the social isolation seems to be less. In Budapest we saw a group applauded and valued as musicians and that brought to mind Django Reinhardt, the Belgian Romani who is one of the greatest guitar players of all time.
In Romania a significant number remain 'travellers'. They are seen walking or crouched begging or selling fruit along the roadside, perhaps too poor to own an iconic Gypsy caravan or a motor van.