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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Roaming around Romania

Think of Romania and almost instantly your mind will wonder to Transylvania and visions of Dracula. Or, you might envision gypsy fortunetellers scrying into their smoked-filled crystal balls. Bucharest or “Little Paris” as it was once called also awaits the wondering tourist with tree-lined boulevards and outdoor cafes just calling to be discovered. Of course there is also the call of the wild because the wolf (my favorite creature) is still a popular and well-liked animal in this county. What else? Not to be outdone by Hollywood, films such as “Cold Mountain” have also been made here in which Romania was substituted for the Appalachians.

But I didn’t really know any of this when I arrived other than the sundry legends, the jokes my friends had made about garlic, crucifixes and Vlad the Impaler, and a vague memory of gypsy caravans being pulled by worn out horses - but more on that later.
More about the little lost lamb and the Ukraine border patrol yielding some mighty strong brass as well, but okay, I promise all that will come soon enough because you see I discovered a lot more than I expected on my first trip to Romania.
Romania actually has 25 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and quite a few medieval cities that are still intact. Transylvania is said to sit on one of the earth’s most powerful magnetic fields and vampires are believed to hang out at crossroads here on St. George’s Day (April 23) and the eve of St. Andrew (November 29).

However, before I could learn any of this I had to arrive and arrive I certainly did. I’d come in with my colleague from Budapest, Hungary on a train in the Eurail system. Not too bad, but it wasn’t the Orient Express (especially when you can see the ground swishing by from the toilet in the restroom, it’s a bit unsettling, but at least there is a toilet.)
Arriving in Oradea we found our guide, who turned out to be a retired teacher, thus my constant questioning about “the Communist times” did not put him off one bit and it certainly gave me a better understanding of the country.
It really is important to know a little history of Romania before visiting, especially the more modern history such as the fact that post WWII Romania was a communist-block country whose dictator was a real tyrant by the name of Nicolae Ceausescu. In 1989 the national uprising led to his overthrow and death and now Romania has freedom of speech, religion and private ownership.
It was raining in Oradea (a border town next to Hungary) when we arrived so it was decided that we would head straight away to our bed and breakfast for the night. It took a few hours and it was at this time that I really began to see Romania. It didn’t take me long to realize that cars were not necessarily the number one means of transportation here, nope there were just nearly as many horse and carts on the road traveling at a rate of speed I didn’t think possibly and of course, this was the day that I got my first look at a real gypsy caravan. As it turned out there were many gypsy caravans on the road, but if you stop and look at them or try and take a picture they will demand money so beware.
There was also the incident at the Ukraine border. I figured we were all friends now so there should be no problem going over the border just to touch my toe and say I’d been there. “No can do” was what my guide adamantly insisted and I believed him when I saw those handy little machine guns the Ukrainian Border guards were wielding, not even a smile could change their minds, and you can’t take pictures either. Something about being an international spy and all that, but anyway it was nice to see the land on the other side of Romania – just a hop, skip and a jump, but oh so far away.
After this little adventure we made our way to Brasov by way of Dracula’s lair, or better known as Sighisoara. Sighisoara is an amazingly well-preserved medieval city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built by the Saxons between the 12th and 17th centuries. If you climb to the clock tower you can easily see the roofs of buildings that were built in the 16th century by the Saxons and there are lovely cobblestone streets to set the mood as well.
However, as beautiful as Sighisoara is with the many historic attractions such as the scholar’s staircase consisting of 175 stairs, all enclosed and leading up to the Church on the Hill with a Romanesque crypt and 500-year old frescoes, it is the Dracula legend that really pulls visitors to this town.
In the 15th century Vlad Dracula better known as Vlad the Impaler was born in Sighisoara and it is Vlad who most people associate with the modern day Dracula legends created by Bram Stoker. In fact, Vlad was ruler of the Wallachia area and during his lifetime he took to impaling criminals and enemies in the town square as a punishment for anything from killing, stealing to lying. Sighisoara has all sorts of little shops to buy Dracula souvenirs and in a town nearby there is even a Dracula hotel.
The following morning we were on yet another drive through Romania when our guide suggested we might want to see the location where the film “Cold Mountain” was shot. My colleague being in the film industry was all for it so we went cruising down a little dirt road only to end up finding a lost little lamb. We immediately stopped to investigate and I don’t know about you, but it just so happens that I have never seen a lamb up close and personal and certainly not a three-week old lamb (give or take) alone in the middle of the woods a virtual appetizer at best for the hungry wolves in the forest. The lamb ran as best “she” could to get away from us, but we caught her and not seeing her mother around anywhere (or any other lamb or sheep for that matter) it was decided that we would find a shepherd and unload the injured lamb on him because indeed the lamb was injured with a hurt front leg.
Of course we had been seeing shepherds everywhere before we started looking for one, but in this case there were no shepherds to be found. Okay, so my next question was do we take the lamb to Bucharest or do you, dear guide, happen to know a stray shepherd? He did in fact know a shepherd woman in the small town over here and there and just about one hour off the beating path so off we went to deposit our lamb to her new home.
When we met the shepherd woman she immediately warmed a bottle of milk and fed the little lamb, I was amazed at how easy it all happened. It also just so happened that her son lived on the block over, had a bed and breakfast and a couple of wolves about 30 minutes down the road.
Our original destination that morning had been to Peles Castle to see yet another “Dracula” inspired destination and it was worth it when we finally made it there. From there we stopped in Brasov for the night. Brasov is another medieval city with Bran Castle (home to the legendary Dracula legend) nearby. The city also boasts the Black Church, St. Nicholas Church, the Brasov Fortress and a Franciscan Monastery, all must sees on your trip.
Our last day and night was in the capital city of Bucharest. Bucharest is an amazing city with a French feel and it was only interrupted in its growth because of the unfortunate Communist rule, which really stunted the growth of just about everything.

Nowadays, it seems that Bucharest is moving into the future at an unbelievable speed and on my first night there I attended a concert at the Opera House. It turned out that my guide’s uncle was giving a piano recital and the music was amazing, old and timeless. The atmosphere in the Opera House was divine and even as I sat in the velvet upholstery chairs with years of wear I realized that I was just one of thousands who had sat in this exact same place enjoying the same sort of satisfaction.The Palace of the Parliament is about as unbelievable a place as any that one will find in a European city on the continent. It speaks of the Communist rule in the worst sort of way even though it was called “The House of the People,” by those in charge at that time. It is, amazingly, the world’s second largest building after the United States Pentagon and it daily serves to remind the people of the Communist rule in Romania. The building was actually commenced during that time period, however, amazing art graces the walls, balconies look toward the city and 1000 rooms inside reflect the work of Romania’s best artisans and architects.
Over at the National Art Museum I found there were over 70,000 works both in the national gallery that exhibits Romanian artists and a world gallery exhibiting western masters such as Rembrandt and Renoir.
Bucharest was said to have be named after a shepherd named Bucur who could apparently play a mean flute, thus dazzling locals way back when so much that the city was named after him. In the 19th century the city was remodeled by French architects, and thus, this is where it gets its “French feel.” In fact, you can even find the Triumphal Arch on Soseaua Kiseleff, which is a boulevard in Bucharest that is even longer than the Champs-Elysees.
My final stop before going to bed that evening was at a Gypsy’s house where I told my guide I wanted to spend no more than $20 on my fortune. However, it doesn’t work that way in Romania and before I knew it I was out of the car and we were sitting in this woman’s parlor where she was telling me it would cost $100 for a reading. After I stopped laughing I told her I was out of there and then she countered her offer and made it, surprise, $20. However, my guide got ill (from the evil eye he presumed) and we had to leave anyway and me without much of a reading. I did learn that my love life was in shambles and a curse had been put on me by a bad person who did not like me. I decided to take my chances instead of pay her the $200 she requested to turn my love life around. I figured I could do my own spells and expect a better outcome.
The Gypsy fortunetelling is a gas, but buyer beware. Of course, that’s another thing I love about Romania - the Eastern European feel, the fact that Gypsy’s really do still drive down the road in horse-drawn caravans and people really are still nice and genuine and always willing to help.
Bucharest alone has 37 museums, 22 theaters, opera houses and concert halls, 18 art galleries and an innumerable number of main attractions for the visitor. So believe me when I say that Romania is well worth the trip and the best way I know to really enjoy an eastern European country before it is teeming with western tourists and touting the new currency of the Euro, which will happen too soon in the future when the country enters the European Union.
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