A small lively figure alongside the highway in the middle of whoknowshere. It gets bigger and bigger and the front lights put that stray dog in the limelight. Another pleasant summer evening in Romania gives in to the night and dinner is yet to be found. Maybe at the drive in over there, where the restaurant lights shine until early morning hours? Maybe that is where our four-legged friend will make a new friend, and these kinds of friendships are the best- made over a good bite!
The countryside around is serene, quiet and here dusk really does feel like “a breach between two worlds” (dialogue between Carlos Castaneda and Don Juan). It is a good time to breathe out the stress accumulated during the day and breathe in the warm summer night. Life feels somehow lighter, at least until tomorrow starts to push one around again. The sound of cicadas is more pleasant than the potential mosquito bites, so it is smart to turn off the lights and get a good rest because tomorrow…
The smooth and young road stretches from village to village full of warm colors: colorful houses, decorated horse carriages, smiling and hard-working farmers hitchhiking (!) to the next village, good and neat hay poles and green pastures and mountains.
The sun heats up the front of the car and it is soon time to turn left and make a break. And there, in the sunny Curtea de Arges, a stone arch reveals a magnificent view: there, next to one more neat hay pole, a beautiful St. Nicolas church proudly rises its tower ornamented with taste: stone jewelry and bright colors pattern cover the outside wall and inside…a good, peaceful moment can be wisely spent and eyes fed with painted fresco’s of the devoted saints.
As the neck streches back, one’s face can meet painted face of God’s son and right at that moment, a ray of sun will make a diagonal, from the right top corner of the dome to the visitor’s foot, arm or maybe heart down below. Artists from Rome came here long time ago and painted the frescos in this amazing place..
Blessed and refreshed, the journey moves on towards the lower Carpathian Mountains, because this car simply must experience the famous and thrilling Transfăgărășan mountain road.
Transfăgărășan. Yes, this is the reason why the «Tope Gear» guys would love to stay in Romania forever. The road starts «innocently» in the lower Carphatians, but soon the car speed finds itself shifting from 90 to 30 km/hour and vice versa and the GPS shows another and another curve around the corner. Try to film it and your camera will spin around, so hold on to it and enjoy the crazy ride. In the unlike moments of stress, just turn to the window (in case you are not the driver!) and enjoy the Fagarasan green beauty, mountain rivers and high stone walls! The temperature of around 30 degrees keeps its constant «Highness», but someting will happen in the tunnel that leads to the Bâlea Lake (Bâlea Lac). The hot Balkans is left behind, that is what people feel when fresh Nordic-like 5 summer degrees welcome them at the entrance of a beautiful glacier lake scenery.
A glacier landscape implies snow in the mountains in the middle of summer and healthy fresh atmosphere. Real enthusiasts climb the peaks surrounding the lake and spend the night outside in their tents. Most of other visitors are happy to climb the hill that gives a dizzy and unforgetable view of the Transfăgărășan curvy road below . The hungry ones head for the booths selling dry meat and sausages, home-made bread rings and nougats with nuts or raisins.
Sibiu, the first city stop after a few days in the countryside. Noon heat is hard to bear and it is useful to know the precious word in a Romanian shop: “apă” («water»). With a H2O bottle or two in hands, the brain is refreshed and can focus on the new and exciting surroundings. People fill the streets and the pedestrian zone, full of shops, cafes and restaurants, is hard to avoid when searching for food. Soon plates full of traditional grilled meat and other dishes occupy the tables and good local beer and wine make people forget about the heat..As the evening with its coolness fills the air, the stream of people walking gets richer and suddenly some drum beats start echoing from the distance. What might that be? The only way to find out is to follow the sound.
A stage in the middle of the square and dancers on it. Their graceful movements tell the story about the genesis of human race and about human genius and his creation. A lazy day is stamped by the dusk full of philosophical questions about the good and the evil we people do when using the assets a genius created. And finally the genius’ thrill and despair when he sees what it all comes to…the topic is heavy, but also entertaining. The scene is, like so many times before, simply a mirror for the audience, those that will hopefully learn a lot tonight.
The next day sunny morning starts with eggs for breakfast and good strong coffee for the road-road to Biertan. A little cozy village in medieval style, designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, with small barking dogs greeting the people from windows or the big ones suddenly jumping out from the dark corners of the backyards:). The local inn hosts its regular guests, but also some “scarry” tourists that do not speak the language – under the condition that they point that beer with finger and kindly pay the waitress. Soon, however, as the drink kills the thirst and cools off the nervous minds, a word of this or that language will be said, smiles and handshakes take place and next time this stranger will be a regular guest! Across the street, local vendors sell honey, hand-made wooden souvenirs and traditional clothes in front of the most famous point in this historical place: a fortified church that is reached by climbing the old staircase in a wooden tunnel.
When the kind host opens the heavy door with a huge old key, the quietness of this gothic sacred fortress takes visitors a few hundreds of years back in time.. Wooden benches, furniture and sculptures with a nave ceiling above have many stories to tell if one has ears ready for them. Outside, the view from the wall surrounding the fortress is really like painted on canvas: peaceful village in the medow, surrounded by the green hills, with hay piles and tractors witnessing the season work progress…if climbing on the hill nearby early in the morning, when the morning mist still hesitates to give in and let the sun rule the day, the fortified church in the distance stands there like a castle from a fairytale and keeps the village safe. The grass is tall on the hill, and legs might be cut by it here and there, but the eyes will be happy for experiencing this unforgettable view, an early morning reward. The days are long and when the evening comes and organism craves for food, the local restaurant just next to the church will serve good traditional dishes in a huge medieval hall (knight armor, axes and shields on the wall, long tables and tall chairs included).
To experience more from the historic Transylvania, many head for Sighișoara, the birth place of Vlad III the Impaler (aka Vlad Țepeș or Vlad Dracula). The central core of this town is a citadel established in 12th century and is famous for its annual medieval festival. The Church on the Hill (Biserica din Deal) dominates the place located on the 429m hilltop and is surrounded by a few-level cemetery which is quite pleasant to visit. Down below, in one of the citadel`s cobblestone streets, in a yellow house…on the second floor…there is a room in red, specially prepared for the tourists. ..A story unfolds among the curtains that easily can turn into cobweb if visitors use their imagination. So here it all started for him, the famous Draculaaa. The old furniture and red light are in strong contrast, just like this room is with the sun and life on the cobblestones outside.
So we can say that the “Dracula tour” starts here. Next stop, place where he spent imprisoned just a short period in later years: the Corvin castle (Castelul Corvinilor) in Hunedoara, a city called by the famous Hungarian Hunyadi family that ruled here in the past .
The castle is closed in the evenings but, as locals like to say, there is always some reason to celebrate in the city center in summer evenings. Tonight, the street is full of vendor booths selling food, drinks and delicacies, one of the very popular ones being Hungarian spit cake kürtőskalács, crispy sweet bread topped with powder walnuts or cinnamon… Further down the road a real “dinner square” unfolds where people mass sits at the wooden tables under the tents à la Oktoberfest and eats meat, goulash, soups, grill and drinks local beer, using up all the napkins, because it is all so hot (or at least piquant) -and extremely delicious! Afterwards it is time to stand in line for the soft ice-cream and the brave ones will risk with their full stomachs and take a ride on a roller coaster in the amusement park. What a nice and surprising evening for someone who gets disappointed because the castle cannot be visited until tomorrow!
And like all the things on this trip – it is worth waiting. Upon arrival, there are many that firstly take a photo of the grey castle fortress with orange roof from the distance, blown away by its beauty and magnificence. It looks almost unreal, just like in hero and princess tales: a wooden bridge goes over a surrounding deep moat. There is also a little stream that flows between the green fields and around the castle, until the water summons and turns in a little waterfall just under the bridge. The visitors walk over it in order to enter this historic site, after waiting patiently in the queue. Soon the fortress walls take the guests long into the past, as they roam from room to room and explore their treasures.
The good part of being on this trip is the drive distances between the places. As the thoughts digest all the impressions from Hunedoara, the eyes are fed with more of the calm countryside scenes left and right of the car windows…
The next stop is the corn field and parking lot next to it. Further in the distance a super-modern museum building just stands there, like a vehicle from a “Star Wars” movie that lost its way in the Middle Ages. Welcome to Salina Turda, the Salt Chamber House or simply – salt mine.
Those who step in this house learn that the word for salary comes from “sum of money for buying salt” and is reminded of the importance of this natural resource. The place commemorates the hard-working hands of the salt cutters back in the 18th century and as one descends level after level deep underground, the Celsius degrees become fewer and fewer until everybody miss that “terrible heat outside”.
Then again, it is completely unique to walk town the tunnel corridor with – salty walls. Don`t believe it – lick it!
The fun only gets bigger, while checking different salt rooms, taking a boat ride on the cave lake, going up and down all those stairs or taking all those elevators and admiring absolutely incredible nature-made patterns on those salty walls and stalactites…As that was not enough, it is also possible to check own singing abilities while your voice echoes back in the special “echo cave room”.
Cluj-Napoca or simply Cluj where one arrives afterwards to have some food and rest for the night, is a surprise if a visitor does not expect too much from it. Lively bars and cafes that work until late at night are already full of both tourists and locals, but first of all students, because this is where they govern. It might be even challenging to get something to eat after 9 pm, since most of the serving places have their hands full of beer, wine, spirit, juices, water, cocktails getting ready for their jolly guests.
Bună dimineaţa!, a fountain with monument in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral seem to greet everyone the next morning, as the sun shines in its full power, promising another beautiful day. The day perfect for the distant trip to the northern Maramureș area; another adventure while driving through villages and towns as corn fields and houses in all possible colors pass by the car window.
At the very entry of this region, the tallest wooden church in the world, the Greek-Catholic Church of the Holy Archangels in Șurdești village almost touches the sky with its 54 meter long tower! This building from 18th century is clothed in dark wood and its interior tells many Christian stories from the past, painted on the old wood in different colors by acknowledged art masters.
The Carpathian mountains as a big and long green wall run along the motorway and from time to time make the radio signal somewhat..choppy… and in case of one of those sudden and merciless rain storms, they can feel threatening; at least until travelers do not find shelter in a nice road restaurant, with carved wooden tables and chairs. The chilly mountain air always increases appetite and even the storm can be enjoyed after some traditional food treat.
On the road again- or better said -on the rain river, the car turns into a boat, the driver into a captain and it is pouring stronger and stronger…the grass fields’ color seems now extra green and the whole surrounding extra clean. It is good with an occasional good summer rain.
As the sky feelings eventually calm down and the evening approaches, a plan is made over -what else?- a good traditional meal.
Merry Cemetery (Cimitirul Vesel), a paradoxical name describing a place just as full of contrast: resting place in the village of Săpânța where life and death, sorrow and life enjoyment go hand in hand. This place is painted in blue (color of sadness?) and it is the most popular graveyard in this area, if not in the whole world…Wait. “Most popular”? “Graveyard”?? What does that even mean?
Most of the blue stone monuments are ornamented with pictures, not only of faces of the buried person, but also of some special episode from his or her life. All of this is decorated with colorful stars hearts and other details, a poem here, a message there and everything does feel somehow – merry. They say it helps for the families to deal with the grief and the loss of the dear person and death here is represented simply as a part of life. There is a queue of those who are to be buried here and behind the cemetery some freshly dug graves are waiting for their blue stone that will tell their story.
Maramureș is said to be a special and cosy corner of Romania, one of those places we search when in need to experience a genuine, traditional way of life of a new country, that feeling which is missing in bigger cities and man-changed rural areas. It is therefore not surprising when the locals call it “another world”, the world which keeps traditional values alive and people are in deep contact with nature. In Sighetu Marmației everyone can make a step in the past by entering the gates of the outdoor Sighet Village Museum and get into the old style village houses that keep the spirit a few centuries old. Those more interested in the recent society history can visit Sighet Memorial Museum . In addition, tranquil monastery yards bathed in summer sunshine, welcome everyone who wishes to rest eyes on the simple beauty of nature, whether it be green fields, flowers, hills or religious architecture.
When naming Maramureș`s village-pearls, Ieud should not be forgotten. It is said that the name Ieud was first mentioned in the 14th century in one of the oldest Romanian books “Codicele de la Ieud”. The manuscript was found in the local wooden church, the oldest one among the famous eight wooden churches of Maramureș. In early morning hours, a good wooden bench is waiting for someone to come and admire out-of-the-world peace and beauty, while the only sound comes from the hard-working woodpecker on the tree nearby. Casa traditiilor is one of the absolutely fantastic guest houses that will feed and tuck in a tired guest and even do his laundry that piled up during a long trip. This place is run by people that cherish Romanian tradition and as they say, “are friendly, hospitable and with the fear of God”. Good thing to note down is that the red liquid on all the dinner tables is not wine: so use smaller spirit glasses for this strong and tasty pálinka!
After a typical Balkan breakfast, consisting of five different egg dishes, five types of bread, five types of home-made jam, meat cheese, warm and cold milk and coffee, the mountain road further to the famous painted monasteries of Bucovina is waiting to be discovered and experienced. There are some parts during this trip that will be challenging, due to the old mountain road; isolated area and challenging climate conditions might have made it a non-priority for the Romanian road authorities. The nature, however, rough but beautiful as always, makes up for the discomfort. It is absolutely worth it. Numerous castle-like white churches with their gray towers and fresco’s on the outside walls, stand proudly on the side of the road, as the car takes the passenger further. Wood industry seems to be very popular in these areas, as a sort of working camp with whole families around can be seen in some of the villages. Lots of the action can be daily experienced on the road, like when cars have to wait for the workers to properly collect and pack the hay onto the tractor standing right in front of them. The next challenge is a wagon in summer-mode speed, pulled by horses ornamened with red ribbons – there it is, you can see it through the windshield and yes, better speed down to 10 km/h. It is summer, after all. No rush.
Several buses take the swings one after another on their pilgrimage to the painted monasteries. The painted frescoes on the outside walls have been visually teaching the people from the surrounding villages about stories from the Bible and Christian faith for a couple of centuries. All the lady visitors in short summer clothes will get a cloth to wrap around their waists and make a long skirt before they enter the serene courtyards of these UNESCO protected heritages. There are eight monasteries belonging to this sacred group of Romanian heritage and almost a whole day can be spent in only three of them: Moldovița, with its nice paths and flower garden, Sucevița with a good museum and Voroneț monastery, “the Sistine Chapel of the East”, that is reached by driving up the hill and down the alley in a sunny landscape. After spending the day in these sacred places and their surroundings, a good mountain rest is ensured in one of the local guest-houses and hotels (best to book in time!) in Suceava.
Next stop – Brașov , 7th biggest city of this interesting country! It is located in the very center of Romania and it is said at the similar distance to both painted monasteries in Bucovina, wooden churches in Maramureș and the Black Sea. A good historic guide will open the door of the First Romanian School, lead through its museum, old classrooms with benches and blackboard and show the visitors some of the oldest Romanian books and the first printing press.
And when the clock strikes ten, the city`s symbol Biserica Neagră (Black Church) welcomes the stream of visitors speaking different world languages and belonging to different world religions…People are many but peacefulness is mostly respected inside as the churches cultural and religious treasures are discovered by many new pairs of eyes.
Brașov might seem desolated in some areas; is the summer heat this afternoon really that challenging, that most of the citizens hide indoors? The answer is soon to be found in the city center and its promenade, where everyone seems to run to, having a walk, eating delicious ice-creams or simply enjoying in one of the many café gardens. Nearby there is a narrowest street ever, so called The Rope Street (Strada Sforii) with the walls almost touching each other and keeping the foot traces of so many that love to “hang” between the walls for the sake of a good photo memory. After a visit to historical monuments The Black and The White Tower, it is soon time for dinner and, since the evening is so pleasant that it is a pity to sit inside, plates full of various grill meat and local beer at the table outside will be an excellent fit.
The next day suitcases are packed in the morning and the car is on the road again, heading south to the famous Romanian castles: Bran and Peleș .
The whole trip might have started long time ago, as an idea to visit the mysterious Transylvania and “the Dracula`s castle” one day, “when we grow up”. But then again, it is really hard to get a clear idea of what to expect upon arrival to the castle in Bran, except souvenirs in all possible forms and shapes with a must-have: picture of Vlad the Impaler, blood and fangs. And queues, long queues in both time and space, and the question arises whether it is worth it to wait so long and maybe enter some 15 minutes before closure and miss the opportunity to see the Peleș castle and end up stuck in traffic with all these worldwide masses and their rental cars and…”but me wait”, as the hit goes.
And slowly the people stream flows towards the gate and as one enters in the yard, a good-looking old castle poses for the photo shooting. By now visitors interested in the history have probably heard that this is not “the real Dracula`s castle”, “he spent three days of his life here” and so on; however, entering the halls and rooms everyone can enjoy the exhibition of old style furniture, read stories from the history on the walls, find hidden passages and of course, marvel the fantastic view from the top floor. The inner courtyard hides a water well, which could provoke some thoughts in the mind of a visitor just having read about vampires and super natural beings in different countries in one of the castle rooms.
All in all, it was definitely worth waiting; the castle looks very nice with its dirty white walls and orange towers, built like a fortress on the hill of stones way back in the 14th century. The Bran Castle could be something different than expected, but probably much better than expected as well.
In the neighboring Sinaia, many people come to seek for skiing, mountaineering adventures, fresh air and spa treatment, but also to a stay overnight after or before visiting the magnificent Peleș Castle nearby.
The 19 century beautiful giant in its gold-plated walls and many tower peaks is surrounded with a big garden, so a visitor can probably spend even two days to enjoy both the interior and exterior.
One of the first things that the guide says, standing on the top of the royal steps, is that the only thing missing in the castle is an internet modem; this is allusion to the fact that Peleș was the first castle in the whole world fully powered by electricity!
And not only that! Besides various rooms that the royal family used for living, resting, painting, knitting, the castle also has a – home cinema! The tour goes from room to room, down the long fairy-tallish corridors. Many stories are told, like that one about people from all over the world coming to build the castle or the one about thousands of weapons from different countries ending up in one of the rooms…Or the one about the secret passage behind the movable book shelf/door. Those things are real.
Through richly ornamented windows one can vaguely spot the garden`s green color and it is not so difficult to picture the queen sitting and playing the harp or the king writing a letter at the desk, resting his eyes from time to time on the fantastic surroundings through the open window.
It feels like a time-travel experience, moving from 19th century Peleș to 21st century Bucharest…When the car finally finds its parking destination after the incredible cross-country journey and the summer city heat replaces cool Carpathian countryside, it is best to wait for evening hours to take the best out of several days in the Romania`s capital.
Almost 2 million people live and work in this developing city, that reminds of many East European capitals. Similar looks, similar recent history and society changes, similar scorching heat during long summer days. And yet again similar city buzz, people defying the heat with attractive short clothes, looks and youth and unbeatable night life! Because when the evening coolness rules, all that is a burden in life can wait until 10.00 AM the next day. Life is only one, after all.
Curious first-time visitors will have to be brave and grab that huge water bottle, because rows will be long and patience necessary during opening hours of all the city famous buildings and museums. It is possible to end up marveling at something that will turn out to be a part of controversial history, but that is how the world is today.
Visiting Romania turns out to be a very enriching lecture: the struggle East Europeans have experienced during the constant development has shaped the dualism of the peoples` mentality. They might be distrustful in the beginning, but it only takes some time until their warm heart and kindness embraces you and they show the best of their culture! It sometimes does takes patience thou, but that is a good exercise for all the people in the world. It is a part of the constant human development on the way to maturity, when prejudices and conflicts give way to something that is actually worth living for.
Text by Dragana Paulsen
Photos by Kjartan Ivar Paulsen