For as long as I really care to remember, the legend of Dracula, set in faraway Transylvania, has always fascinated. For some unforgivable reason, the connection with the legend and Whitby, in Yorkshire, has never held the same draw or mystery. I went to Whitby as a child and it’s remiss of me to have never revisited.
Transylvania calls to me because of all those wonderful films of my childhood that left indelible impressions on my imagination? Dark, foggy nights, carriages with postillions that refuse to speak, the howl of the children of the night, inns that go deathly quiet when strangers enter, the clanging of an entrance bell and the ominous screech of rusty hinges, the shadows on staircase walls………
So, it’s with a liberal quantity of historical licence that we’ve arrived in Bucharest. Coming this far east, you realise that the dark-haired, swarthy Romanians owe much of their cultural and genetic background to their close proximity to the Black Sea and perhaps less to their various neighbours further north. Romania sits at the crossroads of Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. The days of Vlad Drăculea or Vlad Țepes the Impaler have long gone, but this European country refuses to lose contact with either history or legend. It’s part of their culture and not just a tourist draw. It’s a country that has undergone enormous and significant change since the fall of the Ceaușescu family in 1989 and today, it’s a country that now looks gratefully west and into the European family.
It seems apt and slightly ironic that, only two days since the UK left the EU, we’re travelling to a country that visibly shows the benefits to be gained from the greater family of nations. Thankfully, nothing drastic appears to have changed at the customs desks at Otopeni Airport, some twelve kilometres from the city centre. Mihai, the Uber driver speaks pretty good English and we find our way easily to the beautiful top-floor apartment we’ve rented for the week. It’s set back from the main street, the Strada Franceza, and reminds me of one of those Parisian grand salons of the 18th and 19th centuries. Lofty ceilings, large partitioning glazed doors, lots of open space and, once again, it’s spotlessly clean and with blisteringly quick broadband speeds. I suppose there must be many places like this here in Bucharest; after all, it’s always had the desire to be known as the ‘Paris of the East’
There are many things to love about Airbnb apartments and not only their excellent value for money – this rather sumptuous affair is costing us a miserly £230 for five nights. With careful selection, you’ll often find one that is conveniently close to a local supermarket, a bakery and a few decent restaurants. We’ve come up trumps, once again. Just a minute or two’s walk and we’ve reached all three. Downstairs, the St Patrick Kilkenny bar is showing France beating England in the Five Nations Championship, so we enjoy a meal of epic proportions and a massive pitcher of Romanian house beer. All for a mere £20. I can see this is going to be my sort of country!
Of the total 20,000,000 population in the country, Bucharest is home to a tenth of them. In 2016, the city centre was placed on the ‘endangered’ list by the World Monuments Watch and much has happened since then. In 2019, it was listed as the European capital with the highest potential for development. It’s a city moving forwards; shaking loose from its recent political past while drawing in the crowds with its ancient and yet, still revered, history. Don’t get me wrong; there is still a definite feel of being behind the Iron Curtain. Some of the buildings are Soviet-style stark and the pavements could do with a refurbishment. However, look out and up and you’ll see staggeringly beautiful stone work and stunning roof lines over and over again. The roads are full of large and expensive Audis and BMWs and the vast majority of people are well-dressed.
Cismigiu Gardens, Revolution Square, the Romanian Atheneum and Dimitrie Gusti Folk Museum.
It’s our first full day and, as usual, there’s a busy itinerary. We set off for Cismigiu Gardens. This municipal pleasure park for Bucharesters is large but not looking its best on a Monday morning in February. The large artificial lake is dry and the ice-rink, a left over from the Christmas season, has a sheen of thaw covering its surface. Still, it’s not stopping the dozen or so die-hard skaters, nor the sound engineer who is blasting out rock hits from the 70s. All across the park locals sit feeding the birds, enjoying a snack or simply snoozing in the winter sunshine. A group of five elderly women sit together and chat. It’s easy to wonder what they must have seen in their lifetimes and impossible to guess the impact it must have made on them. They were children during the Second World War, teenagers through the Cold War, wives or widows through Socialist Communism and now pensioners at the dawn of better times. Still, they chat as do all ladies of a certain age across the world. They share a joke and, like the majority here, they are in possession of good coats, hats and boots.
From Cismigui Gardens, it’s a short walk to Revolution Square. It was here on the 21st August 1968 that Nicolae Ceaușescu reached the zenith of his popularity when he openly condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia and started a programme of independence from the Kremlin. It was here on the 21st December 1989 that, in the face of desperate economic conditions, massive unemployment, financial collapse and food shortages, he called for a ‘spontaneous movement of support’ from the people, only for him and his wife to be executed three days later in Snagov by troops now loyal to the people’s revolution. Perhaps, on reflection, he might have thought a little more carefully about his choice of speech writer?
It’s not an outstandingly impressive square. Like many cities in the east its approach and exit comprise wide avenues and boulevards; wide enough for missile transporters for those all-important military parades and shows of power and authority. However, in fairness, the buildings themselves are impressively large and grand, as one might expect.
An hour’s walk through the suburbs, past villas of fading glory and down bare tree-lined avenues packed with parked cars having no regard for pavement space, parking restrictions, disabled access or garage entrances, we arrive at the Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum. (http://muzeul-satului.ro/en/) Here, an assortment of 272 houses, windmills, cabins, farm buildings and storerooms has been collected together, transported from the far reaches of the countryside as examples of Romanian village life. Most of them date back to the 1800s. Most of them are made of fir-wood and roofed in either wooden shingles or thatch. Interestingly, more than a few were bargained away from their owners on the promise of a new build – invariably the same, only with a tiled roof. They are simple dwellings but have a charm that evokes a simpler life when the land gave you everything or nothing, depending on the vagaries of nature.
Talking of the vagaries of nature, tourist comments on the web will tell you of the dire state of Bucharest public conveniences. Believe none of it. Dotted around the city are space-age capsules that are free to use and extremely hygienic. OK, they take a little getting used to. On entering, a robotic voice tells you something, in Romanian of course, that must be to do with your safety and to give you the peace of mind that you won’t be disturbed, because there seems to be no way to manually secure the door. There’s a very large red button that I presume should be pressed in case of a dire emergency. What happens then, I really don’t want to know. The paper dispenser always seems to be set on ‘Miser rate’, but it does respond eventually to constant pokes and prods for more. On finishing, you simply leave. The door remains open for long enough so that anybody waiting outside is able to fully appreciate your needs in the first place and then, with a ‘swoosh’, the door shuts and the whole unit emits a noise reminiscent of something from the deck of the Enterprise. Eventually, the door slides open once again to reveal a sparklingly clean interior, albeit dripping wet and steaming…..
It’s too far to walk back but Marius, the Uber driver, collects us and drops us at the pub for a welcome late afternoon beer. In the spirit of ‘pulling in the trade’ it’s tragically called the ‘Big Ben Pub’, but, what can you do? At least the beer is Romanian.
We eat just a short walk away at Hanul lui Manuc, a restaurant that has taken over what was, in the 19th century, the largest commercial premises in Bucharest. Built by an eccentric Armenian as a hotel, it served as offices, stores, accommodation, a public house and warehouses throughout the 19th century. Later, it was the centre for significant political meetings at the start of the people’s revolution. The menu is mainly Romanian, which seems to be determined by the volume of meat and fish on offer, accompanied by potatoes, braised cabbage and other assorted vegetables. The food isn’t cheap, but it’s wholesome and good value. It’s certainly a popular place. Booking is essential, any day of the week.
Grigore Antipa Museum,The Museum of the Romanian Peasant, the Residence of Nicolae Ceaușescu and the Jewish Quarter.
We’re taking the Metro! I love public transport and the four-line underground rapid transit system has been here since 1979 and covers most of the city. It’s fast, clean, convenient but not very stylish. Let’s just call it ‘functional’.
We disembark at Piața Universității and head for the Grigore Antipa Museum of Natural History, named after the famous Romanian Darwinist biologist. (https://antipa.ro/) Four floors of fascinating flora, fauna and fur! There’s the added attraction of a temporary exhibition of sixty-nine snakes, mainly venomous but kept reassuringly safe behind thick glass. To get up that close to two beady eyes, a flicking tongue and a pair of fangs is fascinating. Usually, I tend to find snakes just lie there looking dead, but today we are rewarded by most of them frantically searching for a way out of their glass vivariums.
Next door is the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. It was closed. Apparently, it closes during the winter for ‘renovations’. I have a theory. I suspect the Peasant – and I can only guess whether it’s a ‘him’ or a ‘her’ – goes home for the off-season just for a change of scenery. It would drive you nuts being in there all the year round.
We walk out to the Piata Charles de Gaulle and the Arcul de Triumf before taking to the Bulevardul Primăverii. At Number 50 was the home of the Ceausescu family, Nicolae and Elena. It’s next door to the Syrian Embassy and next door but one to the United Nations building. It’s a very impressive build, but if you want to visit, reservations are essential as you are very carefully guided around. It also probably one of the most expensive places to visit in the whole of Bucharest. It almost make you think that the revenue is helping to claw back the huge debts the old guard left before their demise thirty years ago.
We catch the metro back to Piata Unirii and the start of the Jewish Quarter and then, out of nowhere, it starts to rain. Time to make a retreat home for a lazy end to an afternoon.
We eat at an astonishingly interesting place, the Caru’ cu bere, in English, the Beer Wagon. Originally a beer hall back in the eighteen hundreds, it fell into disrepair during the troubles and was completely renovated and restored after the 1989 revolution. Architecturally, it’s simply gorgeous, and the beer’s good as well. We dine on smoked pork and potatoes while folk dancers take to the floor. It seats over 800 and it’s packed to the rafters, even on a Tuesday night in February. http://www.carucubere.ro/en/
A Day in Transylvania.
It’s time to get out of Bucharest, even if it’s only for a day. We’ve booked a tour with a company I’ve used a few times – ‘Get Your Guide’. They’re very reliable and good value for money. At the unearthly time of 7.30 a.m. we’re waiting around the corner for another Marius and the start of a twelve hour, 280 mile round trip. We join the group: two young women from Athens, a couple from Santiago, Chile, a chap from Rome and Larry from Los Angeles. Larry’s wife is an elementary school teacher who hasn’t yet retired. So Larry is on a mission, working his way to clocking up one hundred countries before he’s joined by his other half and has to slow down. He’s clearly travelled but never stays anywhere long. Arrive, tick the box, take the selfie, depart. On this trip, he’s here via Albania and Bulgaria. Tomorrow he’s off to Nice and then Monaco before flying back to Orange County and the warm Pacific Ocean.
Understandably and predictably, the conversation gets around to politics. Larry tells me he has never met ‘a Brit’ who thinks Brexit was a good idea. I tell him I’ve never met an American who supports Trump. It’s a strange fact of life. He thinks it’s the inward versus the outward looking. Travel broadens the mind, they say, and I conclude that it’s at the very centre of the argument. We broaden out the conversation to the issues of chlorinated chicken and health care. There’s nothing wrong with the former, he tells me, but then again, he’s never been ill as a result of eating it. On the latter, he has stronger views. His wife will have to go full term in her employment as a teacher to receive the necessary health care insurance. Without it, she cannot afford to be ill. He tells me, with some concern, that without it a major operation would bankrupt them. ‘You’re looking at a million bucks’ he says and then tells me we should hold on to the NHS even if we can’t hold on to anything else.
Marius has clearly either been a Scalextric fan as a child or is a frustrated rally driver. We head ever upwards, round tortuous bends, overtaking anything and everything. The Chileans cross themselves on a regular basis, I just grip the headrest in front with whitened knuckles. The Italian, for whom this must be comfortingly familiar after driving the Via Appia and making it around the Colosseum, sleeps through it all.
Occasionally, we slow down. Once because of a mass of blue and orange lights in front and the scene of an horrendous accident. A delivery van has landed more or less on top of a small saloon. It’s flattened it, almost beyond recognition. The cutting gear is out but there’s no way anyone who was in there is going home tonight.
Out past Ploiosti and Cimpini, Busteni and Rasnov, until we reach the village of Bran. Seven years ago, there was nothing here except the castle and a a few scattered cottages. Today, houses are springing up everywhere. Tourism has arrived and they’re making the best of it.
“Mira nieve … nunca he visto nieve. Nunca tenemos nieve en Santiago.”
It’s snowing, I’ve never seen snow, We never have snow in Santiago, says my Chilean companion.
Yes, at last it’s snowing and the region around, developing a reputation for winter sports and hunting starts to look as mysterious as it does beautiful. This is wolf, bear, lynx, eagle and boar country. Not a place to be after dark……in a coach and four…..reading the last letter from your beloved back in Exeter……
Bran is where fiction meets fact. The Irish Bram Stoker wove a fantasy around the story of a vampire, the legend of Dracula and the facts surrounding Vlad the Impaler, ruler of Transylvania.
The fictional story we all know; told countless times in print, on television and on the silver screen. History tells us that Vlad III (1481) started the Order of the Dragons and took the surname Drăculea, meaning ‘Dragon’. The legend grew up around him over the centuries. He impaled, but not without regard to reason or purpose. Most of them were political enemies and it certainly curbed opposition.
Vlad never lived at Bran Castle, although it had been rebuilt from wood into stone a hundred years previously. He would have known of it. But it wasn’t even under his rule, and the legend that places the vampire firmly within its walls came from Stoker’s imagination.
The Castle is now part of the royal Monuments. The Hohenzollern-Sigmarin family were expelled from Romania in 1948 by the Russians, in exchange for clemency for 1500 political students. Eventually the Royal Family settled in Switzerland and became very successful in the world of finance. In 1992, three years after the fall of Ceaușescu, the family were invited back and their castles, homes and treasures restored. Today, the Royal House has been abolished on the death of King Michael in 2017 and, under the state rule of primogeniture, the two princesses cannot take the throne, so they remain in Switzerland, travelling back for family gatherings, functions and holidays. Today, the castle is already being prepared for their Valentine Night’s dinner.
Before we leave, Larry has to go and find souvenirs. As you can imagine, there is much choice. Marius shouts after him, ‘Try not to choose the ones made in China!’ But I suspect the joke is lost on him…..
From Bran we head a further hour to Brasov. We’re still a hundred miles from Bucharest and deep in the Carpathians. Brasov is an attractive city, very Germanic in style and full of coloured, ornate buildings. The Black Church dates back to the 14th century. It’s name sounds ominous but really, it’s only due to the stones being blackened by smoke following a fire back in 1689. It’s lunchtime and we sample a local delicacy – chimney cake. A spiral of deep-fried dough covered in salt and cheese and filled with….whatever you fancy. It looks lovely, tastes good and leaves me with indigestion for the remainder of the afternoon!
Last stop of the day is Peles Castle. This is the jewel in the crown. A neo-Renaissance castle built for the Royal Family between 1873 and 1914. Originally only six rooms, it was extended by King Carol I to over one hundred and fifty at the cost of over £120 million. It is opulent. Golden treasures abound. Everything is of the very best with no expense spared. Glasswork from Murano, marble from Tuscany, ceilings by Klimt….it’s a wonder to behold. Thankfully, Ceaușescu thought little of it and kept away, unknowingly preserving its marvels for later, and more appreciative, generations.
Snow has turned to rain as we head back to lower levels and downtown Bucharest. It’s late and there is only enough time for a quick meal before turning in for the night. The restaurants are busy but a welcome pitcher of the local beer and a stake….I mean steak…. at the St. Patrick Kilkenny, our local bar, suffices.
More snow is expected overnight…..I hang the garlic at the window and, like our Chilean companions, cross myself before lying in the dark, listening intently for the sound of wooden carriage wheels on cobbles and thinking…..our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things. Listen to them — children of the night. What music they make…….
I wake at six, unscathed and intact. Opening the shutters, I’m greeted by a good foot of snow that has fallen during the night and the street has been transformed…..
Palace of the Parliament, Piata Unirii and the Cotroceni National Museum.
The gritters have been out and the roads have been cleared of snow, mainly depositing it onto the pavements. There’s no policy of clearing those and it soon becomes a mixture of skating rink and slush lakes. At junctions, where the drains are blocked by the sheer volume of snow, the puddles are seven or eight inches deep. On the pavements, people slide around, compressing the snow into ice. It’s lethal. Within ten minutes my feet are soaked and I’m feeling thoroughly miserable. I might have what my mother used to call ‘a good coat’ but I’m lamenting the fact that my snow boots are back at home in Wales.
I’m working on the premise that the day can only get better. Surely, it can’t take a turn for the worse?
We head for the Palace of the Parliament, which is the second largest administration building in the world. The guard at the gate welcomes us and we head for the entrance.
“Are we able to take the tour?’
“Of course, have you your passports?”
“No entry without full identification. Passports or National Identity Cards.”
Ah well, at least in this republic, you can get to see the chambers and the debating halls without it being at the invitation or whim of your MP, as it is under our democracy.
We walk on for a couple of miles to the Cotroceni National Museum, housed next to the Presidential Palace. I’ve a tour guide booked for two o’clock.
“I’m booked in for a tour at 2 p.m.”
“Of course, have you your passports?”
“No entry without full identification. Passports or National Identity Cards”
There’s a pattern appearing here……I’ve learnt a salutary lesson today. It’s strange. We never carry passports around in the UK. They invariably are at home in a safe drawer or a cupboard. Here, in Romania, you carry them in the same way as you carry your wallet. Always on your person, no matter where you are.
There’s not a lot we can do. The man with the badges, the epaulettes and the gun doesn’t want to change the rules for a couple of Brits who can’t even be bothered to stay in the EU, let alone abide by the rules of his country. He seems genuinely surprised we’re so negligent in our behaviour…..
“Where are your passports?”
“At the Hotel.”
“Really….?” (The ‘Străini străini’ goes unsaid.)
Now, isn’t that interesting Străini is the Romanian word for ‘foreigner’, you simply double it to indicate ‘stupid’ or ‘you don’t know about this’ as well!
Soaked, with squelchy boots, we make out way home. We buy cheese and apple strudels from the patisserie at the end of the road and a bottle of cold Riesling and seek sanctuary at the apartment. I put the oven on and put my boots in on Regulo 60 degrees…..half an hour and I should start seeing some impact!
It’s not been the best of days, so far, but…ho hum…..it can only get better. And it does….fresh trout and chicken served in the Crama Domnească, a restaurant built on the foundations of the old Citadel, built back in the 15th century by Vlad III. So much character, lashings of good beer and such tasty food.
Tomorrow, we leave. Bucharest has been interesting. However, there is another side to it. In winter, the restaurants and bars in the old town are still competing for the tourist leu, Upper floors are too often given over to massage parlours, ‘live nude’ shows (as opposed to corpses, I suppose) and casinos. The main squares have their fountains turned off and everything is mothballed pending better weather. During the hot summer nights, I dare say the old town slips into a style more reminiscent of the Costas. But, you have to remember that this is, in some respects, a young country. Thirty years ago, it was in a desperate state. Building up an economy and enticing the tourists must have been a big temptation and aiming your market at the lowest common denominator can hardly be considered a crime. There are plenty of resorts on the southern coast of Spain that are only just realising that more is not necessarily better. Bucharest will be the same, I’ve no doubt. But, at the moment, give it to me out of season when it’s quiet, inclement and manageable. It’s not a city with great sights like Rome or Florence; it doesn’t have a quaint historic Old Town as does Gdańsk or Wroclaw. It’s not the ‘bargain’ as are many cities that were once part of the old soviet bloc.
So what does it have? Well, the people are charming; there’s so many places to eat and drink and the food is good and wholesome and the beer is excellent. And, of course, there is Transylvania and all that it conjures up in the imagination. We came to see and experience the history, the legend and the fiction. We weren’t disappointed.
And as someone once said, “Once again…welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring.”