In the nineties, Michael Jackson moonwalked out on to the balcony of dictator Ceausescu´s Bucharest Palace and addressed the worshipping throngs below him. The King of Pop held out his arms and squeaked:
He wasn’t the only one. So many people mistook Romania’s capital city for Hungary’s, that Bucharest once launched a “Bucharest not Budapest” campaign to encourage visitors to learn the difference between the two cities. There was even a rumour that 400 Spanish soccer fans accidentally flew to Hungary’s capital for a Bucharest-based game!
At least the King of Pop got to address a crowd from the hallowed balcony, which was more than Nicolae Ceausescu ever did, having been overthrown (or rather, shot dead) before such an accolade could be accorded.
The Bucharest Palace has since been re-named the Casa Poporului – which means Palace of Parliament in Hungarian – sorry, Romanian.
A 90-minute guided tour of the palace reveals only a mere 3% of what’s available with 12 floors and at least another 8 underground levels (you also need to bring your passport to get in). The Palace is immense and plays host to the Romanian parliament, as well as providing ample room (it has 1,100 rooms) for various conferences, museums and theatres.
Incredibly, the person responsible for the construction process of the Palace of Parliament was coordinated by a mere slip of a girl – 28 year old Anca Petrescu.
The presenters from popular BBC show Top Gear once recorded a programme where they drove cars through vast tunnels hidden beneath the palace. These tunnels were originally designed so the cautious Ceausescu could do an underground runner to the airport in case of a revolution.
Check it out:
When the Romanian Revolution did start, Ceausescu and his wife Elena made their escape from Central Committee Building by helicopter. They didn’t manage to get far as the pilot dropped them off in the countryside where they were arrested and later shot.
There is a fascinating blend of turn of the century elegance and communist excess in Bucharest, which can be appreciated through its architecture. The city centre is a melting pot of Medieval, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau buildings with blocky, functional communist-era architecture lumped in for good measure.
Oana was our guide and she gave excellent potted histories to several landmark buildings during a walking tour of the capital. There were many interesting back stories to life under the exacting communist regime that Romania experienced after the Second World War. Shackles were finally struck off in 1989 and Revolution Square was an obvious place to begin our city tour. It was here where Ceausescu addressed the crowd from the balcony of the Central Committee Building, blathering on about the small matter of a recent uprising. He completely misread the crowd’s mood, which resulted in that emergency helicopter dash for freedom.
After being shot, footage of the trail and execution was released in Romania and to the rest of the world. The moment of execution was not filmed since the cameraman was too slow – only just getting into the courtyard as the shooting ended. (There is a rumour that the cameraman had, in fact, gone to Budapest first).
Ceausescu whittled away at the national debt by exporting all the choice food abroad. Throughout the 1980s increasingly grim reports tumbled out about the Ceausescus’ “State of Terror”. Too much food was being exported to repay Western loans and many Romanians were starving.
“It was as if he sold all the best parts of a chicken – the breast, the leg, the thighs – and left the offal, feet and necks for his people.”
Bucharest boasts many fine buildings besides the Palace of Parliament. The Romanian Athenaeum, an impressively columned concert hall, is just one of several landmarks in the city. Other impressive edifices include the Triumph Arch, the CEC Palace, and the National Museum of Art of Romania. Bestriding the square is the equestrian statue of King Carol, a German who became king (the Germans have a knack for this sort of thing). The Romanians fancied that a bit of monarchy would be just the ticket to spruce things up after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
The National Museum of Romanian History has a strange statue on the steps featuring a wolf being held up by a naked fella.
This is a statue of the Roman Emperor Trajan who conquered Dacia, the province located in Romania. He is holding a Capitoline Wolf, whose head is joined to the tail of a dragon.
When popped on its plinth, the statue was not exactly lauded by the locals, with some describing it as a “monument to Romania’s stray dogs.” Others wondered why the dog was levitating and why it was wearing a scarf while the emperor wasn’t even wearing any underwear.
The Memorial of Rebirth is another monument in Revolution Square, commemorating the struggles and victims of the Romanian Revolution that overthrew Communism. It also sparked spiky controversy when inaugurated for being too abstract and unrepresentative of the suffering and hardships of the revolution. Others suggested in looked like a potato on a toothpick.
Looking like a Giacometti figure having a bit of a sit-down, the statue of Iuliu Maniu pays tribute to one of Romania’s foremost politicians and former Prime Ministers who scorned the Russian influence and was imprisoned when the communists came to power. The statue is slyly positioned in Revolution Square, in front of the former Communist Party Headquarters.
Somehow along the way, we managed to get trapped in the Stavropoleos Monastery, a small Eastern Orthodox Church for nuns. With a service in full flow and some impressive chanting from the black-clad nuns, there was some reluctance to push past the imposing bouncer on the door: a terrifying lady with a thousand yard stare. Fortunately, Oana rescued us.
After a decent walkabout, there were a number of bars and hostelries crying out to be repaired to and we summarily obliged.
After which, we were all going on a bear hunt.
The Carpathian Mountains bustles with bears – brown bears, which require a certain level of care when traipsing through their territory. Romania has a healthy bear population, over 40% of Europe’s ration, and this region is of key international importance in their conservation.
If confronted by a bear, do not turn and run and, if attacked, curl up in a ball and protect your face. There would be no ball-curling for me – I was just going to leg it as fast as I could and hope to overtake the slower members of our group.
Bear tracks were clearly visible on the path as we walked through the woods, and then quietly tip-toed up the wooden steps to the hide.
The hide overlooked a small clearing in the forest, and already a large bear was snuffling around below us. Binoculars and cameras were cocked and ready. As dusk approached, more bears dipped in and out of the clearing with five bears showing up at one time; a couple more timorous beasts circled around and sniffed the air suspiciously.
It was all quite splendid.
The Transylvanian village of Moieciu was to be our base for the next few days. The view from my room, one of sweeping hilly slopes with wildflowers and birds, was in stark contrast to the vista from my room in Bucharest, which was, basically, a wall.
The following morning, Romania did away with its natural modesty and decided to show a bit of leg.
A walk in the Bucegi Mountains up through forest and woodland brought us into a vast clearing with a Sound of Music backdrop. Dark mountains bulked against the sky and low cloud slipped across slightly snowy slopes; wildflower meadows rolled up to the curve of the hills.
It would’ve been rude not to have a beer with such a backdrop and a shack-like bar doled up the necessary refreshment.
Known as the ‘Pearl of the Carpathians’ because of its stunning scenery, Sinaia was a short drive away. Faced with such natural beauty, imported monarch King Carol felt compelled to build Peles Castle here – a Neo-Renaissance chateau crammed with ebony, ivory, Persian carpets, stained glass and all manner of curios.
There is a statue of King Carol overlooking the main entrance, presiding over a goodly amount of other statues aligned along the terraces.
In one corner of the terraced gardens is a statue of King Carol’s wife, Elizabeth, stoically setting about her embroidery. It probably wouldn’t have been her first choice when it came to the commission – surely striding majestically alongside a steed or brandishing an impressive breastplate to the elements would have done the job better.
Pelisor Castle was within touching distance of Peles, an Art Deco/Art Nouveau creation of Queen Marie of Romania, granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Known as the Artist Queen, Marie set about Pelisor Castle with great gusto – and probably a paintbrush. Lots of oak-timber, a working glass ceiling that slides away when the weather’s good. An intricate spiral staircase loops up one side of the hall, and various other chambers lead off from the corridors. There is a ‘golden room’ with gilded walls and thistle decorations – a Celtic nod to her Scottish roots (although she was actually born in Kent).
There is, of course, another castle Transylvania is quite famous for – Bran Castle.
Yes, the family seat of Count Dracula, the notorious Nosferatu who liked nothing better than settling down in front of the TV with some Nachos and a pint of Rhesus Negative.
Not that Bran Castle was ever visited by Bram Stoker, the novelist responsible for bringing all things vampirism into the public consciousness when his book was published in 1897. However, Dracula was banned in Bran and throughout Transylvania due to the communists banning all vampire fiction until 1990.
Vlad the Impaler, the notorious 15th century ruler of Wallachia, never actually lived at Bran yet his fearsome reputation stoked macabre myths more monstrous than anything Bram could.
In modern Romania, dracul means “the Devil” so we can see where this is heading.
Stories about Vlad’s evil deeds began doing the rounds during his lifetime, and he was often described as a man of unheard cruelty and justice – the perfect personification for the creation of Count Dracula.
A lengthy poem about Vlad, the “Story of a Bloodthirsty Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia” deftly outlined a few of his more unsavoury pursuits. Vlad had two monks impaled to assist them on their way to heaven, and also ordered the impalement of their donkey because it brayed too much.
On another occasion, some Turkish messengers refused to take off their turbans when paying dutiful respect to Vlad. Vlad simply reinforced this custom by having the turbans nailed to their heads.
Although described as a ”demented psychopath, a sadist, a gruesome murderer, and a masochist” his brutality was probably exaggerated to some extent by some old adversaries – the Saxons.
In the curiously titled documentation “About a Mischievous Tyrant called Dracula” it was alleged that Vlad (old cove that he was) ordered some women to be impaled together with their babies. He was also not averse to boiling alive the odd dissident or two but impaling was really his thing.
It is doubtful the intended sequel to this document, “The Naughty Antics of Nasty Vlad” ever got published.
It is easy to see why Bran Castle was considered the home of Bram Stoker’s creation, allying its location and details with the jumbled descriptions offered up by the novelist: “Every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool.”
The vast ruined castle being on the edge of a terrific precipice, at the bend of the Carpathians and looking triumphantly down from a rock, has all the hallmarks of Chez Dracula.
The castle is indeed perched high up on a tall rock, following an irregular outline with tall towers and trim courtyards. Inside the castle walls, narrow and low hallways lead down winding wooden stairs, through lobbies and chambers, bedrooms and corridors and out on to terraces. Much in the way of weaponry and armoury adorns the walls and spaces, with the odd wolf pelt splayed randomly across a floor.
At night, under a fanciful full moon, it is hoped some bats would set the whole scene off nicely.
One of the most historic medieval cities in Transylvania is Brasov, a cluster of ancient fortifications where Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance influences abound around the narrow passageways, wide open squares and cobbled streets.
German settlers originally founded Brasov to protect routes that threaded their way through the high passes of the Carpathians.
The Saxons built massive stone walls around the city that are still visible today with Catherine’s Gate being the only original city gate to have survived since medieval times. The town has a fine central square, claimed to be the spot to which the Pied piper led the children of Hamlin. The most iconic historical building in Brasov is probably the 600 year-old Black Church, which became known as such after a great fire blackened its walls. During its tenure as a place of worship, several permutations of different persuasions knelt down at its pews including Catholics, Lutherans and Protestants.
The History Museum of Brasov is worth a look with rare exhibits and collections but on a bright sunny day, a visit should never be at the expense of a cable-car ride up Mount Tampa.
Fringed by the peaks of the Carpathians, Brasov is known as the city at the foot of Mount Tampa. When our old Friend Vlad attacked Brasov in 1458-60, the citadel was destroyed and 40 merchants were impaled on top of the mountain. Nowadays, you can enjoy a leisurely cola and look down on the red-tiled rooftops of the old town sprawling out to meet stern communist blocks on the outskirts.
A tasty traditional Transylvanian meal was waiting for us back at the guesthouse – bean soup, Tochitura – a sort of pork stew, with Sanmale (cabbage rolls) all washed down with some robust local wine.
All that remained was to toast the hospitality of Romania with the local firewater, Tuica.
As they say in Romania – Noroc!