Category Archives: Romania

Romania, Bucharest – last few days in the city

After my lovely tour of the Romanian interior I finished up with a few days in Bucharest and also met up with one of my old school friends Lorna.

Bucharest cannot be deacribed as one of Europe’s prettiest capitals even though it is sometimes called the Paris of the East – somewhat of an exaggeration. And although the communist regime ended in 1989 a series of governments considered both “alternative communist” and corrupt has maybe not helped the city progress as quickly as it could have.

I highlighted some key buildings in my first blog on Romania so for the remainder of my stay I visited the ones I hadn’t seen.

A highlight was a visit to the symphony at the stunning Atheneum Theatre. Concert and environment were perfect and all for GBP15! I also did the day tour – which was just and another chap being given the run of the place.

Bucharest has a lot of very large buildings and monuments. These include the memorial to those died in the world wars- (or the football with a stick through it as it is often referred to!)

We paid a visit to the National Museum of Art housing a broad range of Romanian art including the works of Brancusi (who I didn’t know was Romanian) as well as a European collection. Even though it was a Saturday morning we had the whole place virtually to ourselves and I especially liked the four seasons painted by Brueghel.

On Sunday we were due to visit the Great synagogue plus the holocaust memorial ( it is believed 400,000 Romanian Jews were killed) but it was closed for no good reason!

We did however manage to get into the Choral Synagogue modelled on the one in Vienna and also the massive Jewish cemetery which had some very old and much more recent tombstones. There were lots of Israeli visitors there – this is because a lot of Jewish Romanians left the country during the communist regime under a program where Israel paid for them to emigrate. The regime in Romania charged a hefty amount of extra money for the privilege of being allowed to leave so it could take years to actually happen. Many come back to visit relatives who stayed or to get back to their roots.

We also decided to visit the former home of the communist dictator Ceaucescu, his wife and three adult children. I feel that in talking to people, the shadow of this horrible couple still hovers over Bucharest to this day. While much of the country was starving and living in extreme poverty this house, which is deceptively large, is a wholly inappropriate show of wealth, luxury and excess. Nevertheless it is also a fascinating display of what was available to those with money in the late 80s. Because he and his wife made a speech, escaped from the angry crowd, were recaptured, tried and then both shot (the latter three in the space of one day) the place has been left as it was found in pristine condition.

Not only was there a suite for the parents there was also one for Mrs Ceascescu to use during the day and one each for the three kids – plus and indoor and outdoor garden , gold bathroom, indoor swimming pool etc etc. No-one In Romania has any idea about this opulence because locals were not even allowed in the street where they lived and they rarely entertained in this house beyond the immediate family and close friends.

Some of the other people on the tour were locals and visiting for the first time and were clearly horrified at what they saw. Once again an example of people in power preaching one thing and doing another.

A final dinner in the old town with Lorna and large glasses of local wine topped off the visit.

Romania – touring the interior, part 6 (final) – Bran, Zanesti (and bears), and Peles Palace in Sinaiao. REPOSTING DUE TO GLITCH!

Given a comment made by my friend David and other things I’d read (eg. The interiors are basic with no originals) I was not bothered about seeing Bran Castle (a fairytale looking castle where Vlad the Impaler hid from the Ottomans at one point). I decided to visit just for a photo and detour to some other interesting places instead. (It’s great for flexibility to have a personal guide). One look at the town and I knew it was a good decision- touristy, tacky and basically horrible – especially after all the lovely places I’d been. So here’s the obligatory photo of the castle but I thought the grilled sausages was the best bit!

Bran Castle and the best bit – the grilled sausages!

There are about 6000 brown bears who roam the Carpathian Mountains. I visited Libearty (get it:) which is a sanctuary of 100 bears who have been rescued from pretty awful conditions – zoos, circus, being the local pet, tied to a post, tiny cages etc. This is a not for profit company. They only allow three visits a day and max 50 at each time with a guide so that the bears don’t get stressed. Below is some views of the 29 hectares they have – so lots of room for them to roam.

Some of the 29 hectares that the bears now have to roam around in

The fences are only on the outer sections of three very large areas – they are electrified to keep the bears in and the visitors out. We all kept our voices low as we walked around. Many of the bears have had to learn how to live in the wild as they didn’t know how when they first came.

Love seeing those brown bears enjoy their freedom after all they’ve been through

Bears do climb trees ver fast – I saw this one go up there.

bear sees tree; bear climbs tree.

And watch this video to see how fast they come down again. So never climb a tree to escape a bear!

Unfortunately bear hunting still goes on so sometimes they are asked to take in younger abandoned cubs but mostly these were adults originally kept in cruel conditions. As a result they do not allow them to mate as the offspring would likely be genetically weaker due to the way their parents would have been held captive. Anyway they seem happy now – and seemed to love splashing in the pools (it was a hot day). Apparently it’s great to visit in Winter as these bears never learned to hibernate so at most they do so for a month and they they play in the snow.

Impressive initiative in a country that has only recently developed laws to protect animals.

They also rescue some wolves – some have been cross bred with dogs – not good for genetic survival. The lady below is actually the alpha of the pack and tells the others what to do!

In this pack – the she-wolf is the leader. As it should be.

Peles Palace has the Austria Hungarian influence in spades and was built to show case the best of everything that Europe had to offer just as WW1 was starting. It is set in the hills with lovely views everywhere. Well worth a visit.

Inside and out Peles is clearly Austr Hungarian in design

Real grandeur at every turn to impress the visitors

Love the detailed carvings and marquetry

I so want that Murano chandelier!

Now which throne should I choose today?

I’ve loved my private trip around Romania and it was good to dispel they myths about safety etc. I always felt safe and the people at friendly and helpful when they can speak some English! I am sorry I didn’t have time to see the Danube Delta – next time. It is a sad fact that all the areas outside of a Bucharest are the highlights of a visit to this country. Bucharest can be done in a couple of days in my view and does. It really reflect the real traditional Romania.

Romania – touring the interior part 5 – Viscri (and Prince Charles) and Brasov.

Over the past 6 days my lovely guide Laurensiu and I have circumnavigated Romania covering all the key parts (other than the Danube Delta which will have to wait for another time). I still have a few days in Bucharest but have come to realise already that I have seen the very best of the country outside of the capital.

I was very interested to visit the village of Viscri where Prince Charles (yes that PC) owns two houses which are also guest house you can visit. As he is not short of a bob or two the monies earned go to a charitable foundation of his. He fell in love with this part of Transilvania about 15 years ago and so bought these houses and likes that the locals live a lifestyle pretty much unchanged over the centuries – he is know for liking that kind of thing!

The place that Prince Charles owns in Viscri with his emblem on the rickety door – Ich Dien (I serve)

More houses in Viscri and a traditional garbage receptacle – still in use

Viscri also has a cool citadel – as usual at the top of a hill. This one is in great condition and was open so I was glad to look around the inside. Tiny rooms were available in case people had to stay over due to being invaded and I love the sloped roofing (deliberate to make it easier to collect rain water). The church is Lutheran and check out the narrow benches – no falling asleep on these!

The citadel and walled church at Viscri

Loved these picturesque doors and entry ways around the citadel

The citadel also had a museum showing how people lived during these times – the bed slept 4 – two on top and two in the pull out drawer!

Narrow benches in the church and the museum

The Viscri Citadel provides an excellent view of the surrounding areas so any marauders can be spotted long before they arrive

I overnighted in Brasov where I saw the Black Church – so named as it turned very black after a bad fire many centuries ago. It is not that black any more but the name stuck. Again a great public square where everyone hangs out and takes in the views.

The main square in Brasov plus the “Hollywood” sign in case you forget where you are!

The famous Black Church of Brasov

Brasov is also known for having the narrowest official street (rather than a nameless alley) called Rope Street. It acted as a connection point for the fire brigade to get from one part of town to another as quickly as possible and they built a narrow fire engine just for that street!

Rope Street with Laurensiu and the teeny fire engine

And of course as we headed south there was less focus on only the orthodox religion but much more variety on display including a large synagogue – again not accessible.

The synagogue in Brasov

Romania – Touring the interior, part 4 – Biertan Citadel, Wine Tasting, Sighisoara and meeting some Gypsies

The first stop was meant to be the walled church and citadel of Biertan BUT turns out if was Sunday and Pentecost so the church just decided not to open! So we could only get to see the central part of the village which was pretty and the outside of the citadel with its three layers of fortification (used to defend themselves from the invading Ottomans at that time) walls clearly visible.

Biertan in Transilvania with its three layered walls as defense

As we were deciding whether to hang around or give up on the citadel opening my guide got chatting to a local who made his own wine and he invited to go to the next village to visit his house and have a look at his renovations and taste his wine. This seemed like a good alternative to me so that’s what we did.

This seemed like a good idea and this young man showed us how he had restored the house and how they made wine using the oldest methods known from the area. It wasn’t bad – especially after the fourth glass and gorgeous house Reno’s too.

Wine tasting in Biertan

Impressive restoration of original furniture in Biertan private house

Saxon Citadels abound around here and this is another one we passed by at Rupea. They are always built at the top of a hill so visibility for marauders is excellent!

Rupea Citadel

We continued through the beautiful Carpathian Mountains to Sighisoara which is the first of a few Saxon towns (as in towns originally built by Germans from the Saxony region) – primarily Lutheran. According to the myth this is also the town that the Pied Piper of Hamelin took the children to after he and his music lured them out of Hamelin when their parents refused to pay him for ridding the town of rats!

Long walk up to Sighisoara Church on the hill worth it for the views

Sighisoara has an upper and lower town with two squares and we walked the very long scholar’s staircase to get up up to the upper part which has the citadel fortress – again closed as Sunday:(.

The easier and flatter part of Sighisoara to walk around

This town is also the place where Vlad the Impaler was born so there are lots of Dracula references all over the place. In fact Vlad was a cruel tyrant of a king who did impale people and do lots of other horrid things to keep strong control over his subjects as he was always under attack but he didn’t drink (much) blood but probably liked to suggest he did to keep his subjects scared. Turns out Bram Stoker never even visited Romania so his book his based on what he was told by a friend who visited often.

Dracula’s birthplace and maybe his restaurant!

Firstly I should dispel a myth – Gypsies don’t come from Romania – they just adopted the word Romany a long time ago when they migrated here to sound as if they were Romanian. In fact the originate from Rajasthan and the Punjab in Northern India where they were the lowest caste and as a result regularly kicked out of places and hence they become nomadic eventually living in various parts of Europe like Spain, Hungary and Romania.

Also gypsies don’t live in colourful caravans anymore – they have houses – they are still colourful as are the skirts worn by the women.

The maintain their traditions regardless of the law. This means that their children – especially the girls – often only have 2 or 3 years of school; they are betrothed very young and can marry from age 14. The first family we were due to meet cancelled as their daughter had been betrothed to a young man and part of the tradition is to live – chastely – together for a year before marriage. If the daughter is returned to the home it is a huge disgrace for the family of the bride to be. This had just happened in the family we were due to visit and the father had reacted by being permanently wasted due to the disgrace! Don’t even get me started…….

Anyway we met another family who are blacksmiths (6th generation). They were shoeing their horse when I got there – never seen that before (being a townie) and then one of the brothers made me a mini lucky horseshoe. Fascinating stuff but I am not going to run away with them any time soon……..

My friends – the Gypsies of Transilvania

Ps. I keep surprising myself by understanding the odd sentence in Romanian. Turns out Romanian is 70% similar to Italian and much more different to the other Balkan languages eg. Bulgarian which tend to be more Slavic in design. Who knew?

Romania – Touring the interior – part 3 – Cluj Napoca, The Salt Mines at Salina Turda and Sibiu

More lovely scenery as we headed south through Transilvania – such a lovely country to be driven through and the guide is great in taking the scenic routes which I love.

Never got bored of the Transilvania countryside and those haystacks

Then a brief stop at Cluj-Napoca – one of the former capitals of Romania and still one of the largest towns as it now houses a lot of the best universities. We only had a little time to walk around here but I really liked the vibe of the place and would have been happy to stay a night. It was currently housing the Transylvanian International Film Festival – hence the red carpet outside the opera house and I couldn’t resist photographng the Transilvania Bank sign. What is quite entertaining – to me at least – is that no-one here including my otherwise very knowledgeable guide has ever heard of the Rocky Horror Picture Show!

I want to bank at Transilvania Bank!

Great vibe at Cluj-Napoca

Then we headed for the salt mines of Salina Turda. Having enjoyed the ones in Poland near Krakow when I visited with Jo last year, I was looking forward to something similar as these are touted to be the biggest in the world! They were indeed deep but for some reason they had made the base into a children’s playground thing with a boating pool and Ferris wheel thereby completely negating the grandeur of the place. A real shame in my opinion but when I was not looking at that but wandering down the salt tunnels and then looking at the salt stalactites and sediment and the salt “waterfall” it was impressive.

My preferred part of the Salina Turda salt mine

The too kitsch for me interior of the Salina Turda salt mines

Finally a stop at the lovely Sibiu – a gorgeous old town that looks exactly like you expect it to. It was a Saturday night so was very busy especially as it was hosting an international street food fare in the main market. The bridge over the road which is the entry to Sibiu citadel is called the Bridge of Lies – those accused of witchcraft (women only of course) were asked to stand on the bridge while they answered questions; the belief was that if the lied the bridge would shake (I’m sure with some help from some hysterical villagers?!) and then you were declared a witch and thrown on to the road below. Delightful. The little three house bookstall is a place where you can leave books you no longer want and take those you want to read – very communal.

Close to the Small and Large squares

I enjoyed wandering around the food festival just for the fun of it including the giant skillet of sea snails and the ad for chicken wings that suggests even the chickens recommend them! This part of the world was formerly part of Saxony and so has a strong Germanic influence in building design and also in the food traditions. My meal in the local wine keller could easily have been served to me in Bavaria and so reminded me of things I grew up eating!

Sea snails, chicken and my oh so healthy dinner!

In the morning we took a walk around the small and large square of Sibiu which was much quieter by then as it was Sunday. Huge variety of architecture from Middle Ages to Belle Époque and an interesting “Devil pole” (actually it is an original gargoyle head and base filled with a wooden pool and decorated by the blacksmith’s Guild to show what kind of work they could do – nothing to do with the devil really!). Because of its history Sibiu has a lot of churches – orthodox, RC, Reformed, Lutheran to name a few. As it was Pentecost they were all very full.

My hotel was in that cute lane just behind the Devil’s pole

Inside the orthodox cathedral Sibiu

The Bridge of Lies and the colourful local Saxony style house

Romania – 6 day interior tour, part 2. The Maramureş Region – wooden monasteries, The Merry Cemetery, The memorial to the victims of communism and more ……

We continued driving through the Maramureş region in NE Romania with more gorgeous scenery at every turn and some awesome haystacks.

Roadside scenery and haystacks.

We visited a private house in Dragomiresti that has been turned into the Museum of the Peasant woman. I should say a “peasant woman” is not the derogatory term we might think as it is an honoured role with recognition that the women do almost everything – educate the kids, ferry them around, cook, clean, shop, grow vegetables etc etc. – nothing new here then…

The wooden house below was the museum and is designed in traditional style. The wooden rope carving is a symbol of the family sticking together and is repeated in the way dough is crossed and baked. The pole with the saucepans on it in front of the house indicates it has a lady ready to find a husband inside (as long as there is a pot at the very top!). The shawls are hand embroidered and specially for wrapping around icons.

Museum of the Peasant Woman House

We then moved on through the Carpathian Mountains of Northern Transylvania to the Bârsana monastery famous for its wood buildings. Wood is big in these parts and it is indeed heavily forested although some unscrupulous companies seem to be deforesting at a rate of knots – even in the national parks! Presumably the Romanian government turns a blind eye!?! Not good.

Below is where the priests and nuns live on the monastery grounds. Views and premises not too shabby.

Bârsana Monastery – Priests live in the first house and nuns in the second.

There are then various churches and shrines on the grounds all made from wood in traditional style. Just gorgeous – even on a cloudy and rainy day.

And the interiors of the Orthodox Church (Romanian Orthodox is more akin to Greek Orthodox whereas Bulgarian is more similar to Russian Orthodox) have the usual frescos telling stories but in a far simpler artistic style than the monasteries at Bucovina. Even the open staircase and the nails are made of wood as you can see bottom right.

Interiors of the wooden church in Borsana

In Bogdan Voda we saw the oldest wooden church right next to a much newer version – same style but I know what I prefer.

Oldest wooden church in Bogdan Voda

This area is famous for its large wooden gates which are placed at the external part of many houses leading to the front drive. Traditionally they has two doors – a narrow one for people and a wider one for animals.

Traditional Wooden Gates in Maramureş

Having seen so many it was great to meet the father (Toader Barson) and son team who design and make a lot of these both locally and for a worldwide audience too. Their fame has spread but they are down to earth people and it was fun to meet and and chat with them.

Meeting the woodworkers in Maramureş

Next stop was the Merry Cemetery in Sapinta started by Stan Ioan Patras who took on the ancient Thracian View that death was just another part of life so rather than be sad it was right to be Merry. As a result both the church and all the wooden tombstones are cheerful sleuth carved pictures and stories about those who have died. Some are quite funny. See if you can spot the difficult mother in law!

Local traditional clothing for the seasons at the Merry Cemetery Sighet

Colourful Wooden headstones at the Merry Cemetery

Every picture tells a story – not always flattering!

It is definitely stork breeding season and they seem to like poles in just towns. Great to see lots of chicks in the nests before they start their flying lessons.

Look what the stork brought

I didn’t realise the renowned Auschwitz survivor and and Nobel prize winner, Elie Wiesel was born in the nearby town of Sighet so made a quick stop at his house which is now a museum. No time to visit but glad I took a quick look.

Elie Wiesel memorial and his original home

Still in Sighet I visited the chilling Memorial to the Victims of Communism Museum houses in a former prison. Each prison cell is set up to explain about. A different aspect of the rise of communism and those who fought against it over the forty or so years it took its hold in Romania. Over two million were killed during that time. Another harrowing story of what humans can do to each other in the pursuit of power and control.

Memorials to the victims of communism and quiet area for contemplation

Powerful sculpture – Procession of the Sacrificed Beings – representing the desire to herd people to one way of thinking which is represented by a solid brick wall

That evening I overnighted at a homestay. I wasn’t sure what to expect but the house was huge – I had a bedroom, living room and en-suite and then enjoyed a home cooked meal. It was really fun and made a nice change from being in a hotel.

Traditional meat and vegetable soup with sour cream and a peck of pickled peppers (possible Peter Piper’s?); sammerle (stuffed cabbage): chicken with paprika and rice, colourful pickled vegetable and pancakes with home made cherry jam and more sour cream (homemade and so thick you could turn the dish upside down and it didn’t fall out!)

A really busy and long day but enjoyed seeing and learning new things.

Romania (my 107th country) – 6 day interior tour. Part 1 – A brief stop in Bucharest, the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina and painted eggs

I decided I wanted to see more of the interior of Romania while I was here so ended up booking a private guide/driver to take me around for 6 days. While more expensive than small group trips this is a great way to really get a feel for the place and have a captive knowledgeable person answering all my incessant questions – The lovely Laurensiu has done a great job so far. Here he is picking some young pine needles for me to try nibbling as the locals do – not my favourite.

After a lazy evening enjoying the view from the apartment in Bucharest …….

Views over Bucharest from the my Apartment

……we did a quick round trip of highlights of the city. As I am back for a few days at the end of the tour I will do more of Bucharest then when I will also be joined by my friend Lorna for a few days.

So a must see is the exterior of Palace of the Parliament

The Palace of the Parliamnet

built by the infamous Ceaucescu who wanted to have the largest parliament building in the world – and for a while he did – until the US built the Pentagon and now it is the second largest. That’s the way it goes. This country has around 19 million people and 600 members of parliament! Quite a lot but even though, most of the 1100 rooms are rarely used so it’s a bit of a folly. Unfortunately it is not possible to go inside at the moment as the current President of the EU is from Romania and so until that finishes at the end of this month there are no visits permitted.

Then we passed the Atheneum which is now an opera house, the national museum of Art (which I will visit on my return), the central library of Bucharest, refurbished hotels and the former HQ of the communist party in Revolution Square where Ceaucescu made his last speech on 21 December 1989 thinking he could bring his people round to his way of thinking one more time – he was wrong and the crowd went against him. Even though he escaped he was recaptured within the day and he, his wife and son were shot.

Giant sized buildings & monuments in Bucharest

On to the marvelous Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum which is housed in a massive park on the outskirts of the city that also included the former Royal family’s palace.

The museum is fascinating because it is a gathering of houses and other dwellings/buildings from each of the regions of Romania that have been lifted and shifted whole or deconstructed and reconstructed in this area – so they are all original – and show the diversity of style in building. It’s a brilliant idea because having now been to some of those regions it is clear that there are very few of these styles of houses left so Mr Gusti had an excellent vision to preserve things in this way.

Traditional wooden houses from the countryside

Blue and white colours reflect Greek influences

Local wood is often carved or etched with symbols

Next we had a long drive to the north east of Romania through very scenic countryside ……

and an overnight stay at Gora-Humorului – where I got to try Ciaorba chicken soup and then cabbage and smoked pork – served with garlic cream and sour cream – this meant I was in heaven and then I saw this lovely old trabant which made me laugh. They look much prettier like this!

I also saw the first of many tin covered churches (they look silver) in Bacău and I rather like the variation from the usual gold or copper.

Next morning we started to explore the 3 of the many painted monasteries in Bucovina – starting with Voronet which is the oldest and dates back to the 1400s. The main colour of the exterior painting is blue made from lapis lazuli and is such a unique shade that it is officially known as Voronet blue. Given the age of this monastery (which like most of them is actually full of nuns) the paintings are in credible shape. These monasteries were build as defence strategies against the invasion of the Ottoman Empire and so had walls around them to aid defence and secret storage places behind secret doors for the Christian treasures. (No pics allowed inside)

Voronet Monastery showing off Voronet Blue

After a walk through the local craft market …..

All sorts of handicrafts

…….we moved on to Moldvitsa Monastery built in the 1530s. By now they were building higher walls to aid defence and the external colour focus was more red. The paintings depicted as much of the New Testament as possible and also the stories of the saints and the journey to heaven or hell depending on your behaviours on earth. In the absence of literacy this was a great way to educate the ordinary people on what had gone before and what was to come – I guess they were the emojis of their era?

We headed through more gorgeous countryside to Suceava for some local bbq’d mici (like mini minced meat kebabs but much more juicy) at the peak of the surrounding valleys. Stunning.

On top of the world

Moldvitsa Monastery – no holy water, tap’s good enough for me.

The last monastery we visited was Suzemitsa Monastery – which was the biggest and by now walls were even higher and defence towers stronger. I managed to sneak a few internal pics while the nuns weren’t looking:)

Suzenitsa Monastery looking like a real fortress

Typical wells found at monasteries and still in use.

Interiors of the monastery – nothing is left unpainted.

Finally, a fascinating stop at the private museum of the old skill of egg painting. the museum is in the egg painting artist’s house – and she is indeed an artist – I cannot begin to tell you how amazing her work is or the volume of it (over 1009 apparently). She is famous both inside and outside of Romania for her work. Painted eggs use a batik style approach where designs are etched in the lightest colour first, then dunked in wax, then etched again in the next lightest colour and dunked again and so on until complete. Then the egg is held near heat for the wax to melt so it can be rubbed away and you get this!!!

Egg painting taken to a new level

I couldn’t get enough of these eggs

And my two favourites

Traditional and Art Deco style