Romanian roaming …

(December 2019)

  • Currency – NZ$1 = RON2.85 (Leu or Lei)
  • Population – 19.4 million

(Apparently, the Romanian currency, the Leu means Lion in English.  At one time, they used to use the Dutch currency, which had a picture of a lion on it – so they started to refer to money as Lion or Leu.)

I have finally made it to the end of the big year that was 2019 – it only took just under a year to finally write up all my trips!  Last but not least was a weekend in Romania which got off to a more successful start than previous trips as my pre-arranged taxi pick was actually there to pick me up! 

Being early December, Bucharest was already lit up with Christmas lights.  It took me a little while to work it out, but many of the lights were footballed themed  😂, in recognition of the upcoming European cup that was to take place in the city – of course we did not know at the time, but the Euro 2020 was not going to happen!  Lights on the trees, lining the streets and on the buildings. (Terrible photos sorry as they were taken from a car!)

Sadly, I had spoken or should I say written too soon when I said things had got off to a more successful start as I was left standing outside the hostel for 20 minutes before being let in!  At 12.15 am that is precious minutes I could have been in bed!!! Not to mention it was 0 degrees and I was not really dressed for it!!!  When I finally got into the hostel, I was sharing a room with 3 German guys, nice enough guys but at 12.30am they were awake and drinking in the room. Thankfully not long after I got in, they shut everything down and went to sleep.  Hostels are a great budget choice but sometimes I do wonder if I should just pay more for my own room 🤔.

As I am always trying to maximise my limited time, by alarm went off at 6.30am on Saturday morning (sorry boys lol) for my day trip to explore a tiny bit of the country.  It turns out that the group consisted of me and 7 Spanish girls! I would like to say I could converse with them in Spanish but they spoke so fast and with such Spanish accents (rather than the South American ones I am use to). I got the odd word but not much more 🤦🏻‍♀️. I did try though with a little Spanish when I spoke to them 👍🏻

We drove around 1.5 hours out of the city through the freezing fog (not as cold as Kiev was a couple of weeks but still pretty cold) until it cleared and turned in to a beautiful day as we drove across the plains and past what would be fields of wheat, canola, sunflowers, corn in the spring/summer months.

Our first stop for the day was at Peleş Castle, near a town called Sinaia, in the Carpathian Mountains.  It is a neo-Renaissance building, built initially between 1873 and 1883 with additions being added up until 1914.  It was built for King Carlo I. 

(It may look familiar to you, it did to me … and after much brain racking I realised it was from a movie – The Christmas Prince (a Netflix Christmas movie) and it sequels are all ‘based’ here.)

King Carlo was actually born Prince Karl from Bavaria but when Romania found itself without a ruler (because the noblemen had expelled the last one), they went on the hunt around Europe for a suitable candidate.  No need for them to be Romanian, they just needed to be someone who would do their bidding.  Prince Karl was not their first choice but was recommended by Napoleon (first president of France and nephew of the other Napoleon).  He became “reigning Prince” or Domnitor on April 20, 1839.

The castle (or palace as it more accurately is) was built as a hunting preserve and summer retreat and was the first castle in the world that had electricity, all produced by a local Hydro dam.  Interestingly, all the beautiful fireplaces were just for decoration and the castle had central heating!  So, although it was built as a summer palace, you could live here all year round.

Carlo I had called the castle the “cradle of the dynasty, cradle of the nation’ and to some extent this was true as not only was it occupied by King Carol 1, and his wife Queen Elizabeth, but also his successor King Ferdinand and Queen Marie and King Carol II was born there in 1893.

When King Michael was forced to abdicate after World War II (as royalty is not recognised under communism) the castle was nationalised and turned into a museum and although it was returned to the Royal family in 1997 after the fall of the communist regime, they agreed it should continue in the capacity of museum.

Oddly, the ‘photo tax’, the extra charge you had to pay to be allowed to take photos inside the castle was as expensive as the entrance ticket, but I paid it anyway – so of course I had to take lots of photos to make it worthwhile lol.

Once we had put on our stylish shoe covers (to avoid damage or dirt of both) we were allowed to enter the castle which was truly beautiful.  The interior is primarily baroque in influence, with each room ornately carved and beautifully decorated.  That said, many of the rooms are decorated with a different cultural influence e.g. German, Italian, Moorish, Turkish.  The attention to detail is incredible.

The castle houses a massive armoury (over 4,000 pieces), a retractable glass roof, the first movie theatre in Romania and lots of secret corridors where one can stealthily move between rooms.

After a guided tour of the castle and some free time to wonder around the beautiful grounds, it was time to head off, just as a number of large bus groups arrived.  I anticipated that we would get more of this as the day progressed and the guide told us that not surprisingly, it gets extremely crowded in the summer months.

Back in the van, we continued through the Carpathian Mountains and into Transylvania where our next stop was located – Bran Castle.  Probably the most famous (or perhaps infamous) of the Romanian castles due to its links (real or fictious) to Vlad the Impaler and Dracula!!

Bran Castle started life in 1382 and was originally a medieval fortress built on the border of Wallachia and Transylvanian and was used in defence against the raging Ottomans before becoming a customs post between the regions. 

Next up came Vlad III – probably known as Vlad the Impaler to you and I, but was actually called Vlad Țepeș or Vlad Drăculea – Vlad the Dragon in medieval Romanian (hence the name for the fictional character – but more about that later), the Wallachian ruler between 1448 and 1476.  Despite being intrinsically linked to the castle in modern folk law (for want of a better name), in reality it seems he did not have a significant role in the history of the castle beyond passing through the region a number of times.

That said, he is often considered a national hero and was one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history.  Infamous for his battles against the Ottomans and his cruel and brutal punishments (hence the Impaler moniker).

In more recent history, after the signing of the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 and the return of Transylvania from Hungary to Romanian, the castle became a royal residence.  As you can image it took some work to turn what had been military fortress into a home worthy of a Queen, but that they did and it became the favourite home of Marie of Romania and was inherited by her daughter Princess Ileana. 

As with Peleş Castle, it was seized by the communist regime at the end of WWII but in 2005, ownership was returned to heirs of the von Habsburg family – the American son of Princess Ileana.  The Habsburgs refurbished the castle and reopened it as a museum.   Unlike Peleş, where much of what you see is original, over 80% of the artifacts in Bran Castle are replicas and of course, being a medieval fortress at heart it is no where near as beautiful inside as it far more modern cousin.

That’s all very interesting, but what about Bram Stoker’s Dracula I hear you say?  I am sad to say this is purely fictional (but of course this does not stop them raking in the money from tourists who come to see Dracula’s castle).

Whilst doing research for a book, Bram Stoker (an Irish man who had not been to the region) came across the brutal exploits of Vlad Dracula in the region and used his name and exploits as inspiration for his book.  Now I have not read the book, but apparently there is actually no direct referral in them to Bran Castle, and the description does not even match it but in the 1970s, the Romanian government made some very broad statements to market it as the “real Dracula Castle” to encourage tourism!  Who knew it was all an elaborate communist plan to get us to visit lol.

Around the base of the castle, there was a small market where I enjoyed hot wine and local smoked cheese 👍🏻 before getting back in the van for the short drive to Brașov, the main city in the region. 

We were dropped in the centre of the old town for some free time before our afternoon walking tour and being December, they had a lovely Christmas market in the beautiful square.  The guide had recommended a local restaurant but looked like all tour guides recommended it and it had a queue of tourists out the door, so I walked down the street a bit a had a delicious Italian pasta lunch (oops 😂) before having some time to explore the streets around the main square and wander through the Christmas market.

Our walking tour started at the Black Church, over 600 years old and one of the most iconic monuments of the city as well as being one of the biggest medieval churches in this part of Europe.  The church, built in 14th century, was originally called St Mary’s but in 1689 a fire raged through the walled city destroying most of it, leaving only the blacken walls of the church.  Subsequently rebuilt, from then on it was known as the Black Church.

Rope Street, one of the worlds narrowest streets, was built in the 15th century as a route for fire men to pass quickly from the city walls to the heart of the city. 

Catherine’s Gate, also built in the 1500’s, is the only original city gate that still survives from medieval times (although documents say it was originally a wooden structure)!  Apparently during Saxon times, this was the only gate Romanians were allowed to enter through and they were forbidden to own property inside the city walls.

The Neology Synagogue was built between 1899 and 1901 as a prayer house for the Brasov Jewish community which was formed in 1826 with just four families.

By this point it was much colder and we were glad to get back in the van and head back to the city.  A nap on the way back made the journey much quicker lol.

Back in the city, passed those odd football themed Christmas lights again, I made a bee line for the Christmas market.  As with Kiev, the fountains in the city centre have been drained for the winter, but here in Bucharest, they have replaced the water with Christmas lights which I love lol.

The Christmas market, located in Constitution Square, was rammed with people – even pre-covid I have never really been a fan of big crowds, so I did not plan to stay too long. I had a quick walk around and bought a couple of cute Christmas decorations before wandering back towards my hostel, stopping off for a semi traditional dinner of skin less sausages or Mititei.

Hostel life 🤦🏻‍♀️ why do I do it you ask? I have done so many weekend trips this year I don’t think I could have afforded it otherwise. Generally, I have been lucky and but unfortunately in this one I was clearly on a different schedule than my room mates who were sound asleep when I got back from my day out at 8.30pm.  Then they got up and started drinking in the room at 9.30!  Thankfully they went out around 11pm – but of course that meant they came crawling back at 3am, 4.30am and 6am – no, not all together!   And so I had to pack in the dark at 8.30am 🤦🏻‍♀️

For my final morning I joined one of the free walking tours,  I got a little lost but am always early so had plenty of time to find the right meeting spot … there were so many people there, but thankfully many of them were Spanish speakers so by the time the groups were divided up, the group I was in was fairly small. 

We started in front of the Palace of the Parliament, or as in front of it as you could get with the Christmas market set up right in front of it 🤦🏻‍♀️  obscuring the best view of it.  The building is not only the second largest administrative building in the world (the Pentagon in the USA is the biggest one), it is also the heaviest building in the world – weighing over 4 million tonnes!

The ‘Palace’ was ordered by the last President of Communist Romania, Nicolae Ceausecu and it is known for being very ‘fancy’ inside.  It was constructed over a period of 13 years, starting in 1984 with construction continuing after his execution (along with his wife) in December 1989 having been convicted of economic sabotage and genocide after the Romanian Revolution.   

Today, the ‘Palace’ houses the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Despite this, and being used for conferences and other events, it costs over $6 million per year to heat and light it … and it is still on 30% occupied!

The Palace of Parliament is strategically placed at the end of the Boulevard Unirii, a copy of the Champs-Elysees in Paris but apparently it is 1 m wider!!   They also have a copy of the Arch de Triomphe earning the city the nickname of “Paris of the East’ – the cities architecture is varied, with Soviet buildings and North Korea inspired apartment blocks neighbouring beautiful French style architecture.

The French inspired Palace of Justice, built between 1890 and 1895 is located on the banks of the Dâmbovița river.  King Carol I himself attended the official opening.  Upon the fall of Communism, all the leaders of the communist part were judged here, beginning sentenced to death, labour or jail.

As our walk continued we passed the beautiful Stavropoleos Church.  Built in the early 18th century as part of the Stavropoleo Monastery by a Greek monk, today it is surrounded by much taller buildings which shadow the tiny Church.  The church is ‘Brancovenesc’ style (after Constantin Brancoveanu) which in reality is a blend of styles – local, Oriental, Byzantine and Italian renaissance.

Situated on Calea Victoriei or Victory Street, CEC Palace (yes, yet another palace) was built in 1900 as the headquarters for the CEC bank (Romania’s oldest bank), which it still is today.  Apparently the glass dome still contains the same glass as when it was built – an amazing feat considering the battles the city has been through.

The next Palace is the Palace of the Post Company which is now houses the National History Museum.  Once the site of an Inn which was demolished in 1856 but parts of the cellars still survive and are visible below the street level.  The ‘Palace’ was built around 1894 at vast expense.

Through the covered arcade street – Macca-Vilacrosse Passage.  Lined with restaurants – I which I had explored a little more last night as there seemed to be some nice (less touristy) places.  The highlight of the passage is the beautiful glass roof which apparently has still has the original glass from 1891.  The passage is fork shaped, as the owner of the hotel in the centre of the land where they wanted to build the passage did not want to sell, so they built around it!

Lipscani Street/district was one the most important commercial areas in the city from the Middle Ages until the early 19th century.  Interesting it got its name from the city of Leipzig and the traders who came to the city to sell their wares.  It had been severely neglected until 2013 when many of the buildings started to be restored and again today it is an important trading street.

As I have previously mentioned, at the end of WWII, the ruling Communist party forced the King to resign and leave the country.  Many people loved the King, and some referred to him as the ‘King of Everyone’ and during the war the royal family saved the lives of many Jews.  The Communist party tried to completely erase the Monarchy from history by removing that part of the country’s history from the school curriculum.

We paused outside the beautiful Church of St Antony (or Anton), the oldest church in Bucharest (after a number iterations but still retaining its Wallachian 16th century style).   Being a Sunday morning, there were services in most of the churches, and the singing was beautiful.

My final stop on the walking tour was at St George New Church, the burial site of Constantin Brancoveanu.  The church was built in 1707 and is called “zero kilometre” of Romania.  The centre of Bucharest and the point from which all distances in the country are measured.  Brancovenau was an important ruler who refused to convert to Islam under Ottoman rule – as a result he was beheaded, along with his sons.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the walking tour before the end – and more than 30 minutes of that we’re taken up in a cafe, where all the groups go, so there were long queues!!  I would rather have been walking and seeing things and could have sat in a café in my own time!

That said, my early departure was to meet someone for lunch – I am so used to spending my busy weekends rushing between sites I rarely have time to meet people so it made a pleasant change to meet a colleague of my uncle (who is an architect that specialises in cultural heritage and conservation architecture).  Through his work he had spent some time working in Romanian and Dumitrita is a colleague of his.  It was lovely to get an opportunity to meet her before heading back to the airport for my flight back to the UK.

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