So many who travel to Romania often ignore its capital for its other more enticing cultural and geographic elements. Yet Bucharest seemed to me a natural beginning for this sojourn. On the surface, large parts of this city seem like it were an open canvas for neo-classical and Stalinistic architecture at its most resounding. Grey, monolithic and functional, but with an archaeological sense of story, where if layers of people could be uncovered, rather than the earth itself, Bucharest would tell its story. Each worn out façade or ailing street yearns for your imagination, rather than your observation.
At the centre of all things concrete stands the The Palace of the Parliament. Built by Romania’s former communist leader, Nicolae Ceausescu to house his megalomania, and as a result is the second largest structure on the planet, after the foremost tribute to megalomania, the Pentagon. Over a thousand rooms of sheer opulence and exaggeration, lends itself to an interesting state guided tour. A small conglomeration of foreigners are rounded up at an obscure entrance and herded into a few halls, where a human guide plays the role of an abridged audio guide and repeats that every tangible item – from the curtains to the marble and cloth – originated in Romania. And then as abruptly as it began, it ends, but only after a few moments on its balcony with a panoramic view. This may well be a travellers first encounter with Romanian styled nationalism, or second encounter depending on whether they required a visa or not. And this nationalism is unlike most; it permeates through the air and settles on anything willing to stake its claim. And it leads one to examine the Romanian identity, always in the shadows to the Saxons, Hungarians, Ottomans, Axis powers, Allied powers, Soviets, and now under the scorn and scanner of the European Union. One soon realises they never had much time in history to really be Romanian and even the geographical boundaries that now defines them is a recent phenomenon.
Along the way, open boulevards and open parks remind you of a traumatic past leaving scars that can be felt but not seen. The Peasant Museum presents the life of the peasant in a folkloric and romantic voice. An uplifting journey back to pre-agrarian days, in total antagonism to the accelerated industrialisation outside it. And it is these peasants who created and sustained gastronomic art with the creation of the ciorbÃ„Æ’ de fasole cu afumÃ„Æ’turÃ„Æ’. A traditional soup prepared with white beans and smoked meat. The pinnacle to a fulfilling cuisine influenced by all its neighbours and once inhabitants. Thus began my love affair with a sour soup, and I had her everywhere.
I have always harboured a hope to see the almost mythical confluence, where the Danube meets the Black Sea. This tryst of water bodies results in a haven of exposed nature. At first light, we set out with impervious ignorance to the challenges posed by Romanian transport. We had a narrow window of one bus, to make one ferry, to make one port, and as it turned out that one bus was full, and the chain of intricate connections failed before it started. Of course we could try again, a few days later that is. And so, the confluence remained mythical and we set forth to be condoled in the alluring arms of Transylvania.
As soon as the train passed its first pine trees, you feel a distinct Transylvanian sensation. Now a geographic denomination within Romania, but a continent of culture and history and ethnicity unto itself. Originally founded by the Romans, then after years of tribal invasions, it was conquered by the Magyars in the 9th century, and remained in largely Hungarian control for over a thousand years. The land first ceded to Romania at the end of World War I after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During World War II, Romania was playing musical chairs with their allegiances and when finally the music stopped they happened to be sitting in the chair of the victorious allies who then bequeathed them the territory. Today, about 1.5 million Hungarians live in Transylvania along with a small population of Roma (Gypsies). The tensions are very real and the conflict, although extremely insignificant in a worldly perspective, pervades all facets of their coexistence.
First stop Brasov, a Saxon town, stunningly embraced by the southern Carpathian Mountains. Meticulously preserved streets and buildings, each silhouetted directly with the mountains behind. Although a tourist destination, Brasov manages to remain nonchalant to their invasions and remains a city of living culture; with theatres, markets, and hosts an international music festival. About 60km northwest of Brasov is the mountain town of Sinaia, named after the monastery around which it is built. Breathtakingly hovering over the Prahova River valley, it was the choice destination for winter retreats and summer castles. A misty cable ride about 2km above it, where the clouds part slightly to ceremoniously reveal stunning glimpses of the valleys below. The neo-Renaissance Peles castle built by King Carol I, also presents itself near Sinaia, and if pretty medieval torture houses are your thing, then the castles of Romania are amongst the most choicest.
If Dracula were truly a night prowling, blood sucking immortal seducer, then his home should be a shrine. Yet Vlad ‘Dracula’ Tepes was a sadistic, impaling ruler who pillaged in the thousands and spread a reign of suffering to rival any in the European Dark Ages. This has somehow captured the adoring affection of the modern tourist who flocks in droves to visit the few remnants of his existence. Yet, Peles castle is less imposing than others, an almost folktale façade and colours reflecting the serenity around it make it worth a visit. If nothing then for the pathway through the mountain ridge to reach it, lined with tortes, souvenirs and the occasional gypsy.
Not having the benefits of an automobile, which is the most chosen mode of travel there, plunged me into a memorable relationship with the Romanian railways. Now if you’re not concerned with matters of frequency, reliability, safety, hygiene, politeness and professionalism, then these journeys are fascinating, where the vessel becomes the destination. This is typified at the station in Sinaia, where the carved out of the mountains, less a relic, but a proud reminder of Eastern Europe’s once grand locomotive traditions, where pastel coloured carriages line up in front of Russian styled buildings. The punctuality of the services allow a lot of time to soak up their charm.
Next to the village of Tusnad, the starting point to a cherished walk through many fir tress and sloped shepherd abodes to Saint Ana Lake. Formed in a volcanic crater in the eastern Carpathians, these origins give rise to topography that is laden with beauty and legend. This region of Romania is known as Szekely land, and is predominantly Hungarian; their homes begin with carved wooden gates that are like portals into their culture. And their gastronomy, and here owing to my gracious hosts, my Romanian sour soup was temporarily betrayed for her Hungarian counterpart.
Back to the train, and then another train, and then Sibiu. Once capital of Transylvania and primarily Saxon until the end of the war, Sibiu is now one of the most significant towns of Transylvania. Bestriding the Cibin river, and with an impeccable historic city centre, it was chosen as the European Capital of Culture in 2007. This unfortunate privilege leaves Sibiu a little artificial as it caters to nouveau European ideals of modern economy that are in contrast to its origins and its neighbouring towns. Cluj-Napoca in Northern Transylvania was a last curtain call, once a Roman enclave now a bustling city and one of the largest in Romania. Gothic style churches flanking an inspiring avenue out of which tributaries of streets spring, full of life, with cafés and bars in tune with its chic student population. Out of the city, a gypsy flea market filled with cultural memorabilia, which you must earn by searching through East German toasters and Chinese socks and then bargaining in Hungarian or Romanian. One of the few places in Romania where being non-white has distinct advantages, be it only financial. Their esteemed football team, FC Cluj, after some success, put Cluj on the map past year. And even though procuring a ticket is a few times longer than the game itself, and what their games lack in passion and violence, is made up by a beautiful stadium perched on a hill above the city.
And as Romania ended, thoughts of returning began. This time for the whole barrel of wine and not just the taste.