“Is it usually so foggy this time of year?”
We rode in a van through the Carpathian Mountains in what was once Transylvania, one of three former kingdoms that now comprise Romania. We had just passed through a gypsy village and more than once had seen a horse and cart on the road carrying logs or hay.
“Yes, usually in the mornings over the farmland,” our driver/tour guide answered. I don’t know why I was surprised. While we had waited for him to pick us up at our Home Away apartment a couple hours earlier, a black cat had loitered a short way ahead of us on the sidewalk. “First we’re going to Peleş Castle and at the end I want you to tell me which you think is better.”
I’ll let you decide for yourself about the castles, and the rest of the highlights of the trip as well. What follows is the rest of our long weekend of sightseeing.
Extravagant is the best way to describe the first castle we visited before the main event. It had been commissioned by King Carol I of Romania, who was originally born in Germany. The outer design particularly retains a lot of German style, while the inside is filled with carved wooden wall decorations, Italian marble, a Turkish smoking room, and so on and so on. I imagined this being built after a consultation that went something like, “I have virtually unlimited money and want to showcase my wealth. What can you do for me?” The result was truly gorgeous and awe-inspiring.
Bran Castle (“Dracula’s Castle”)
The four of us had prepared for this visit by taking turns reading aloud from the opening of Bram Stoker’s Dracula on our balcony in Bucharest on the evening we arrived. Bran Castle, having belonged to Queen Mary for much of its history, is built directly into a foundation of sheer rock. It stoically served as the gateway between the former kingdoms of Transylvania and Wallachia. Compared to Peleş Castle, its unornamented wooden rooms make it look like more of a practical living space.
The truth is that this castle is only loosely tied to the (anyway, fictitious) story of Dracula. It seems that Bram Stoker had at one point visited Bucharest, collected stories from Romanian history and folklore, and spun them into a tale whose tremendous popularity is to blame for a good deal of tourism in this area. The tyrannical Vlad the Impaler’s father was named Vlad Dracul, and the Impaler’s grandfather had owned Bran Castle for a few years after it was given to him as a gift. So the family name Dracul, the briefly owned Transylvanian castle, and Romanian folklore about “strigoi” (vampires that could be warded off with garlic, etc.) has since breathed a new and mysterious life into the scenically located but otherwise ordinary Bran Castle.
We visited many churches on this trip as well and learned a lot about religion in Romania. The vast majority of Romanians are Christian Orthodox, with some Catholics in Transylvania and a smaller percentage of other religions. The first thing we noticed in the Christian Orthodox churches was that there are very few seats and that these usually line the walls. That’s because church-goers stand for services. Note: A typical Sunday service is three hours long, while a holiday service can last closer to five hours. Smaller services take place twice a day. And Wednesdays are somewhat important church days too. And Fridays. And we even saw a roadside church where people can take their new cars to be blessed.
In a small town called Braşov we also saw a beautiful historic synagogue. Post-WWII Romania has a small Jewish population as well.
We spent the following day with the same guide on a trip to Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria. Bucharest is about an hour from the Bulgarian border and from here we traveled another two hours to this scenic city, crossing the Danube and winding our way through the Balkans. Although both countries are part of the EU, they each still use their own currency and have a toll booth-style customs office you have to pass through on the border. Once in Veliko Tarnovo an older gentleman behind a counter exchanged some Euros for Bulgarian lev (meaning “lion” like the Romanian lei) with a calculator and stacks of money. In the meantime, signs had switched over into the Cyrillic alphabet. Romania had once used this alphabet too but changed over to the Latin alphabet we use, with the addition of many types of accent marks.
Bulgaria has changed hands many times in its history: It was ruled by czars, it belonged to the Ottoman Empire, part of it belonged to Romania, it was under Communist rule, and is currently a democracy. Unlike Romania, it apparently achieved democracy without a revolution. As you can see, we saw a town-enclosing fortress that was rebuilt under Communist rule, a beautiful church hidden inside an ordinary-looking farmhouse, and a Turkish-style (Ottoman Empire period) house.