In the Magyar city of Targu Mures the next morning, we walked through the elegant centre, well known for its varied architecture. The main square is lined with fine Secession-style buildings, the most grandiose being the Prefecture and Palace of Culture, built in 1907 and 1913 respectively.
This city is now 30% Hungarian, and was once an important medical centre with an excellent pharmacy school.
En route to Bistriţa we passed neat gardens with laden quince trees, and on the hillsides flocks of sheep could be seen, tended by a shepherd with his dog. Following a winding road through the hills, we passed wine estates such as Zaig, Jelna and La Salina. In one town some of our group spotted a stork family perched on a nest at the top of a telephone pole. Alex told me that they were late in their departure for North Africa, as their young had not yet learned how to fly. The peasants take them in when the weather turns cold and house them with their poultry. Sometimes they survive, and sometimes not. The other storks had already left between the 27th and 29th of August, as they do annually, with remarkable regularity. I was sorry to miss these interesting birds, and had to content myself with the flocks of crows, or fake plastic storks sold at souvenir stalls. Bedside the road Gypsies stood with plastic buckets full of yellow chanterelle mushrooms, hoping to sell to the passing traffic.
Bistriţa, which dates from 1264, is one of the seven main medieval towns of Siebenbergen (Seven Citadels, or Fortresses), the German name for Transylvania. It derives its name from the Russian word bistro meaning fast, due to the fast-flowing river flowing through its eastern boundary. (Hence the term “Bistro!” – Quickly! from the Russian Cossacks who commanded the inn-keepers for rapid delivery of their food and drink – a term now used by French restauranteurs.) Another explanation is that the Bistriţa River originates from the Slavic word bystrica, meaning the serene water. Here we visited the 13th century Orthodox Church, formerly Franciscan, and admired its gorgeous interior, especially the 14th century murals.
On the road to Sucevita we drove through the spectacular Tihuta Pass, one of the three routes into Transylvania, which connects it to the Bucovina region of this province. George our driver manfully navigated the steep winding roads, while contending with the universally maniacal overtaking for which Romanian drivers are notorious. On the way we stopped briefly to refuel; a picturesque village was just visible in the valley below.We wound through picturesque green valleys with livestock, past orchards laden with yellow pears and golden delicious apples, and up into dark forbidding forests. Traversing the eastern Carpathian Mountains, we stopped on a summit at the imagined location of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula’s castle. It is now a hotel and restaurant, surrounded by the usual souvenir stalls, and a bust of the author Bram Stoker on the front lawn. “What would Romania do without Dracula?”, I asked no-one in particular, to which a young Romanian woman answered “We’ll just think of something else, like a Countess Dracula!”
I marveled at another honey stall selling flavours ranging from acacia, raspberry, and lavender, to pine and ginger, as well as syrups, and bought a bottle of delicious ginger-flavoured honey.
Continuing along winding switchbacks through magnificent Alpine scenery, we passed tumbling brooks and forests of Christmas-card pine trees, traversed two more mountains, and finally reached our overnight stay at the isolated, rustic Hotel Popas near Sucevita.
Supper in this pleasant mountain retreat was “traditional”, and after wishing one another poftă bună (bon appétit) we enjoyed a plate of sliced cheeses with cherry tomatoes and cucumber, sarmale – finely minced beef, onions and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves, served with delicious polenta and thick sour cream, and peach custard tart..
We were warned not to venture from our chalets that night, for fear of the bears that come out of the forest to fossick in the garbage bins. Several dogs barked on and off all night, perhaps suspecting a marauding bear or wolf.
The next day was spent in Bucovina, a historical region located on the northern slopes of the Eastern Carpathians in Moldavia province, shared with the Ukraine, and famous for its unique painted monasteries (all on the UNESCO World Heritage List.) All have magnificent external frescoes, still quite clear and bright on their southern sides, weather-worn and almost completely erased on their northern sides. The winters can be brutal in Romania, with icy winds sweeping down from the Siberian steppes which have clearly done much damage to these hidden gems. The morning was still and cool, the pine-clad mountains wreathed in mist and low cloud, ideal for our reverent excursions.
Moldoviţa is the most isolated and picturesque of the monastery villages, and the highest. The monastery is a much smaller complex than Suceviţa, and similar in structure, but equally well defended, its ivy-clad walls enclosing white stone buildings with shiny black-shingled tiles.
It was founded in 1532 by Stephen the Great’s illegitimate son Petru Rareş, during whose reign the Turks finally compelled Moldovia to pay tribute and acknowledge Ottoman suzerainty. He had hoped to resist the Turks, despite their inexorable advance northwards after their capture of Constantinople in 1453. The siege of Constantinople is depicted along the bottom of the south wall, and Christians can be seen routing the infidel with arrows and canon.Founded in 1584, Suceviţa monastery is the largest and grandest of the monastic complexes, and also inhabited by nuns.
It was built as a monument to Prince Ieremia Movilă of Moldavia, his brother and successor Simion, and his widow Elisabeta. She poisoned her husband Simion so that her sons would inherit the throne. Ironically her ambitions came to naught, and she ended her days captive in a Sultan’s harem. She and her children are depicted in a votive fresco inside the church – no photos allowed, understandably. A glorious Ladder of Virtue covers the northern wall, which has been largely protected from erosion by the building’s large overhanging eaves. Flights of angels assist the righteous to heaven, while sinners fall through the rungs into the arms of a grinning demon.
The frescoes, painted in 1596 by two brothers, are in brilliant reds and blues against a ground of emerald green, and must have been magnificent when freshly painted. As with the Moldoviţa church, there is a magnificent Tree of Jesse, a sort of Biblical “family tree”, with an ancestral tree of prophets culminating in the Holy Family.
The famous monastery of Voroneţ was founded by Stephen the Great in 1488 to fulfill a pledge to his confessor the hermit Daniil, who had assured him that a campaign against the Turks would be successful. The Turks were duly forced back across the Danube, and the monastery erected within three months.
The superb frescoes painted by Metropolitan Neamţ from 1547-50 have led to this monastery being dubbed the “Sistine Chapel of the Orient.” His use of lapis lazuli for the blue pigment has led to the term “Voroneţ blue” (along with “Titian red” and “Veronese green”). As with the others, there is a Tree of Jesse, and a Last Judgement featuring a flaming river into which angels and devils push the sinners. Turks and Tatars are depicted in limbo, destined for perdition.
Later in the afternoon we drove south to the beautiful Agapia Monastery, a more recent complex built from 1644-47 by Prince Basil the Wolf’s brother, Gavril Coci.
During restoration work in the late 19th century, the interior was repainted by Nicolae Grigorescu (1838-1907), Romania’s foremost painter at the time, and one of the founders of Romanian modern painting.
This peaceful space, a complex of white-painted buildings with green roofs and two helmet-shaped domes, is filled with flowers, in flowerbeds in the central courtyard and spilling out of boxes on the wooden balconies. At prayer times a nun plays the panpipes; these I heard, but the player was discreetly invisible. Freshly baked breads, jams and syrups, all harvested and made by the nuns, are sold at a kiosk at the entrance to the convent.
We had dinner – a frittata square, chicken kebabs with salad, and chocolate cake, and spent the night at the gloomy Soviet-era Hotel Ceahlau in Piatra Neamt. This was another town with depressing grey apartment blocks, and crumbling but lovely old Baroque buildings reflecting a glorious past. Occupied since Neolithic, Bronze Age and Dacian times, Piatra Neamt is one of Romania’s oldest settlements. It was first recorded in Roman times as Petrodava, and in 1453 as Piatra lui Craciun (Christmas Rock). Just as the light was fading I visited the beautiful Church of St. John (1468), with its highly ornate interior, across the park from the hotel. Beside the church entrance is a votive inscription to Stephen’s son, Bogdan the One-Eyed.
Nearby stands the sturdy Bell Tower, a magnificent Gothic structure erected in 1499 by Stephen the Great.
The next morning we crossed the Carpathians once again, passing a lake dotted with dozens of swans, rivers unfortunately edged with plastic debris, and kitchen gardens with orange pumpkins, white turkeys, and large plump geese.
Traveling south towards Braşov we passed through the spectacular Bicaz Gorges, stopped to take photos in a narrow valley cleaved by a rushing mountain river, and enjoyed a welcome leg-stretch in the fresh mountain air. We walked up the steep hill to a tiny plateau where George had managed to park the coach. These gorges are flanked by high jagged cliffs which admit little sunlight, and because they attract many tourists, and are lined with a few souvenir stalls.
The so-called Red Lake, Lacul Roșu, further along our route is the largest barrier lake in the Eastern Carpathians chain. The name comes from the reddish alluvia deposited in the lake by the Red Creek, such as iron oxides and hydroxides, and was formed when an earthquake in 1838 caused a rockfall to block up the course of the river. It is actually deep green in colour, and also known as the “Killer Lake”, and, like so many other places in Romania, associated with a legend. It is said that when the slope collapsed on top of the nearby village, the landfall killed most of the inhabitants, as well as their animals, causing the lake to be filled with blood. Equally sinister, of the forest that became submerged by the lake, only tree stumps remained, and over time they turned to stone due to the sediments. Now the spruce trunks that just appear above the water surface resemble tombstones. Another popular tourist destination, there are restaurants, cafes and a substantial souvenir market complete with honey stall near the lake.
Lunch was in the town of Miercurea Ciuc – delicious cauliflower and carrot soup with nuggets of beef, cabbage salad with dill, and cake, which, along with my gluten-intolerant companion, Sandra, I managed to exchange for fruit. This town’s main claim to fame is as the home of the Romanian beer Ciuc (pronounced “chook”), now owned by Heineken.
Just before ending the day in Braşov, we visited the imposing fortified church at Prejmer, the most comprehensively fortified and spectacular of all the churches in the region. It was built in 1225, and taken over by the Cistercians in 1240 and enlarged in their Burgundian early Gothic style. It was surrounded by a 12-meter-high wall with five towers after the Turkish invasion of 1421, and because of its position on a plain rather than a hilltop.
Inside is a magnificent Passion altarpiece, and the surrounding walls contain store rooms, and other re-created work rooms such as one for weaving, a workshop, and a classroom for the children.
The day ended with a walking tour with Alex of Braşov, one of the largest towns in Romania. It was badly bombed by the Allies during WW II, as it was here that oil for the planes was refined. It was once a very active industrial centre, with thousands of Moldavian villagers drafted during the 1960’s communist era to work in the new factories; now the main income is from tourism. This is easy to understand, when standing in the central square of the beautiful mainly Baroque Old Town.
Known as Kronstadt to the Saxons, it was founded by the Teutonic Knights in 1211 as one of the seven walled citadels (Siebenbürgen), on an ancient Dacian site. With conscious perspicacity regarding the main trade and invasion routes near the Carpathian passes, the Saxon elite grew prosperous here, long outlasting its feudal privileges. Braşov exudes a distinct medieval ambiance, and has been used as a backdrop for many period films. (See the list at the end of this article.)
We had a pleasant evening walk up to the top of the city walls, which gave us a fantastic view over the city, but only had enough time to see the famous Black Church from the outside. This magnificent Gothic structure was built by the German (Saxon) community of the city during the late 14th century, as the Catholic Church of St. Mary. Now it is the largest and one of the most important Lutheran churches in Transylvania. After this we visited the beautiful “hidden church” – the Orthodox Cathedral.
After winding up narrow mountain roads, we eventually reached our stop-over for the night, a vast alpine resort complex in Poiana Brasov.
The next day was a day of great castles, beginning in Bran to see Dracula’s Castle, which lies on the border between Transylvania and Wallachia.
Vlad Ţepeş (c 1428-31 – 1476/77) was never a Count, but a Voivode (local governor or ruler) of Wallachia, and he never lived in this castle as an adult. He is known to have passed through this area many times, and to have visited the castle as a child because it belonged to his grandfather. He also did not suck blood; that legend derived from dubious legends about the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (1560-1614) who, imagining that she could glean eternal youth, allegedly sucked blood from the throats of young girls, crimes for which she was eventually incarcerated until her death.
The Teutonic Knights first built a wooden castle on this spot in 1212, but 30 years later it was destroyed by the Mongols (Tatars). In 1377 the Saxons of Kronstadt (Braşov) built a stone castle here, and in 1438-42 it was used in defence against the Ottomans.
In 1920 Hungary ceded Transylvania to Romania, by which time the castle was nearly in ruins. But the Romanian royal family renovated it, and from 1920 until 1947 they used it as a summer residence. It was the favourite home and retreat of Queen Marie. She left it to her daughter Illeana, who ran a hospital here during WW II. But in 1947 it was confiscated by the communists, and the royal family expelled the following year. After the 1989 Revolution, in 2005, the Romanian government passed a law allowing restitution claims on properties illegally expropriated, such as Bran, and a year later the castle was awarded ownership to American Dominic of Hapsburg, the son and heir of Princess Ileana, who gleans an income from the entrance fees to the castle. The rest goes to the State, for the maintenance of the place, and the Ministry of Culture.
Alex told us how Vlad Ţepeş defeated the Ottoman Turks several times, as he infiltrated their army and was trained by them, and came to know their tactics. He was indeed cruel, infamous for his means of death by impaling, but so were the times cruel. In some ways he was rather a hero for Christendom.
The castle approach a substantial touristic affair, with restaurants, hotels, cafes and numerous souvenir stalls selling everything from Vlad the Impaler T-shirts, coffee mugs, and frig magnets, to good embroidered blouses, pottery, and other touristic tatt.
After a short drive over the mountains we reached Sinaia, once the preserve of hermits and shepherds, until King Carol I built his fabulous summer residence Peleş Castle here in 1875-83.
This extravagant, fantastical pile, resembling a Bavarian Schloss from the outside, and set in an English-style park, was decorated by his eccentric wife Queen Elisabeta. There are 160 rooms, richly decorated in ebony, mother of pearl, walnut and leather – all completely alien to traditional styles of Romanian art, and stuffed with antiques and copies of famous paintings. It hasn’t been lived in since Carol’s death in 1914, and was opened to the public in 1953. In 2008 it was finally handed back to the last king of Romania, Mihai (Michael, 1921-2017), reuniting him with his birthplace and childhood home. I found it rather dark and over-cluttered, but most impressive, nonetheless.
After returning to the coach, dodging Gypsies selling tiny baskets of raspberries and blueberries, we continued on our way, and our final return to Bucharest. We arrived in the late afternoon, and headed straight to the Village Museum (Muzeul Satului) on the shores of Lake Herăstrău.
Established in 1936, this wonderful outdoor museum is an ensemble of over 300 dwellings, workshops, churches, windmills, presses, and other structures from every region in the country, and beautifully illustrates the diversity of Romania’s folk architecture. One cannot enter the buildings, but admire them from the outside.
After a rushed delivery of suitcases and handing out of keys back at the Hotel Central, we assembled for our group’s farewell dinner at “the best restaurant in Bucharest”, Caru’ cu Bere (meaning the “barrel of beer”.) This splendid place resembles more the inside of a church, with its splendid décor featuring Gothic vaulting, wooden balconies with carved spiral staircases, and gorgeous stained glass windows and ceilings.
On the menu were rolled crepes filled with onions, red peppers and chicken, topped with grated cheese and grilled, mititei – grilled spicy sausages – served with mild mustard, roasted jacket potatoes and tomato salad with grated Parmesan, and a large sweet donut filled with black cherries and cream and topped with a caramel sauce; a glass of red wine, or tankard of beer brewed by the owners, was included.
It was packed that Friday night, with both tourists and locals alike (always a good sign), and is probably this busy every night of the week, it is so popular.
Disappointed that the tour did not include a visit to the Black Sea coast, and the famous Delta region famous for its birdlife, I arranged to take the train to the seaport of Constanţa with my new Australian companions, Astrid and her daughter Michelle, the next day.
The landscape was rather flat and uninteresting until we crossed the mighty Danube River, which forms the southern boundary of Romania with Serbia and Bulgaria, and was the former frontier of the Roman Empire. We rattled over several waterways, where there are a few vineyards. The distance to the coast from Bucharest is 227 km, and took two hours by train, (134 RON return, about R500.)
Constanţa was hot and humid, and our walk from the station to the beach uninteresting, but promised some interesting history. First we visited the ancient original core of the city, located on a headland between the present-day tourist port and the modern docks.
At the centre is the Piaţa Ovidiu (Ovid Square), which is surrounded by the ruins of Tomis (the Roman name for the settlement), and a rather mournful statue of the poet (erected in 1887). No-one spoke Latin in this remote town beyond the Danube, a situation he must have found most frustrating. He was exiled to this distant corner of the Empire by a decree of the Emperor Augustus in 8 AD, for reasons that are uncertain, until his death in 17 AD. Ovid himself wrote that the cause of his exile was carmen et error, a “poem”, probably the Art Amatoria – a “personal indiscretion” or mistake. The council of the city of Rome revoked his exile in December 2017!
We entered an ugly glass and concrete structure to see the remains of a magnificent Roman mosaic, discovered in 1959 5m below street level, and thought to have graced the upper hall of Roman baths built in the 4th century AD. It was part of a three-storey structure linking the upper town to the port, which also incorporated warehouses and shops.
On one side of the square stands the Archaeological and National History Museum, housed in the former city hall. Here some beautiful items are exhibited, the most captivating of which is the Glycon Serpent, in excellent condition – a unique creation with an antelope’s head, human hair and eyes, and a gracefully coiled serpentine body ending in a lion’s tail. Dating from the 2nd or 3rd century BC, it was found in 1962 a few meters from the Square.
Before heading down to the beach, we quenched our thirst with delicious lemonade with ginger and mint at Esplanade, one of the many coastal resort restaurants overlooking the beach, which turned out to be brown and prickly underfoot, with a myriad of tiny broken seashells. Skirted the areas with signs advertising loungers and umbrellas for RON 10, we found our own spot among the bathers, and went for a swim in the lovely warm water (compared to the Baltic or Cape Atlantic!)
Back up at the main Square, which has so much potential from a picturesque, “Old Town” touristic perspective, we found only pop-up wine bars in tents, and one souvenir stall selling rather poor icons.
After a slow stroll back to the station, which was sadly lacking in an information booth, and maps, we returned to Bucharest, happy that we had achieved our mission of seeing Constanţa and swimming in the Black Sea.
My last morning in Bucharest was spent seeing the items in which I had a particular interest, not included in the tour itinerary. It was a Sunday, and everything closed, but it was wonderfully quiet, cool and fresh. The only sounds were those of church bells, and the chanting of Orthodox priests through the speakers of the churches that I passed, all creating an enchanted atmosphere of spiritual reverence. I saw old women feeding pigeons in the parks and ducks in the River Dămboviţa with long fresh loaves.
My first objective was the seat of the Romanian Orthodox, the Patriarhia (Patriarchal Cathedral), which was built from 1655-58. A service was under way, so I knelt quietly among those doing likewise at the back of the church, admiring the magnificent iconostasis and listening to the ancient incantations of the priests.
Navigating with my smart phone I made my way to the Palatul Regal (Royal Palace) which houses the National Museum of Art, and spent the rest of my time in the capital enjoying the Medieval and Modern Galleries.
The former contains mostly sacred items, icons, frescoes, embroidered vestments and religious objects, while the latter begins with the Impressionist master, until the present day. I was interested to see the Romanian painter’s articulation of Western European trends, cubism, pointillism, abstract art, expressionism and surrealism. Most fascinating were the beautiful new Carturesti Carousel book shop in the Old Town, and the Vilacrosse and Macca Passages.
I regretted having insufficient time to see the Museum of the Romanian Peasant and the National Museum of Romanian History, some of the large parks and the Botanical Garden, Ceausescu’s palatial mansion, and the famous Therme hot minerals baths outside the city. But I was happy to acquire a hand-embroidered blouse and other useful gifts in the Old Town, and to window shop the beautiful shoe and dress boutiques. I was surprised to be able to buy wine at a small supermarket next to the hotel, on a Sunday.
Romania presents to the visitor a complex tapestry of peoples and periods from the medieval to the modern. One sees elderly folk with long skirts, aprons and head-kerchiefs alongside the techno-savvy youth clamped to their smart phones. In the countryside and villages it is as if time has stood still for centuries, while the cities reflect everything from Roman ruins to Baroque splendour, Soviet-influenced elements and sophisticated contemporary architecture.
Smoking is universal, a factor perhaps behind the times in terms of knowledge and health regulations. The food is not internationally significant, though knowledge of where and what to eat appears to be a delightful experience. The confectionery is too sweet and decorative for my taste, but the baked items such as the salty seeded pretzels are something special, especially when bought piping hot and eaten from the paper packet. Shopping is a delight, especially for the ladies; there is an abundance or gorgeous shoe and dress boutiques in the cities, and delightful gifts, embroidered blouses, and souvenirs to be purchased for family and friends. In spite of what the guide books and internet say, Euros are accepted, and even US$ were accepted in some of the souvenir markets. Above all the countryside scenery is quite magnificent, as spectacular as I had been led to believe, and the costs are cheap compared to most of Western Europe. Back to PART I here.
With grateful thanks to my new friends and fellow travelers, Astrid Drakes and Michelle Ostberg, for allowing me to use some of their images.
13 significant movies filmed in Romania
The Dying of the Light (2014), Nicolas Cage.
The Zero Theorem (2013), Matt Damon
A Farewell to Fools (2013), Gerard Depardieu and Harvey Keitel.
The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman (2013), Shia LaBeouf, Evan Rachel Wood and Mads Mikkelsen
Hatfield and McCoys (2012), a mini-series produced by History Channel, almost entirely shot in Transylvania near Brașov, where the Carpathians served as a stand-in for the Appalachian Mountains. Kevin Costner
Ghost Rider – Spirit of Vengeance (2011), Sibiu and Bucharest
The Whistleblower (2010), Rachel Weisz, Monica Belluci and Benedict Cumberbatch
The Brothers Bloom (2008), Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz. Peles Castle, Constanta.
Youth Without Youth (2007), based on a novel of the same name by Romanian Mircea Eliade, showcases several places in Romania, like the mountainous resort of Sinaia, Brașov, Constanța, and Piatra Neamț. Tim Roth, and Romanian actors Alexandra Maria Lara and Andi Vasluianu.
Cold Mountain (2003), in the village of Reci and Bucharest. Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, Renée Zellweger and Natalie Portman.
The Keeping Room (2014), Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
A Princess for Christmas (2011), Peles Castle in Sinaia. Romanian actors Razvan Oprea, Madalina Anea and Razvan Ciuraru.