A weekend in Bucharest plus an excursion to the mountains
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Bucharest has a lot more of a Western feeling about it than I expected. After an east block style queue of more than 40 minutes to show your ID Card at the tiny old Baneasa airport your taxi into town rides on nice boulevards, lined with modern office buildings, past a Stalinist landmark, a marble arch, serene parks and embassies. Some squares and. high-rises are somewhat out of dimension but the general look and feel instantly is more like Milano than Moscow.
Bucharest once was called 'Little Paris' and the closer you come to the inner city the more you can see how this came about. German and French architects built grand public projects in the eclectic style of the late nineteenth century, at a time when the country got a good start as a nation state from territories formerly under Turkish rule. They adopted Carol, a diligent prince from a Hohenzollern sideline as king, who's reign and dynasty were well respected. It lasted until 1948 when the communists took over and didn't make things better.
Quite a bit from the royal period survived the wars and the dictators. Period architecture still dominates on the two long boulevards, Calea Victoriei and Boulevard Magheru, which run from the north to the south to form the backbone of the inner city. A few Bauhaus and art deco buildings are squeezed in between and even the additions from the early communist period blend in not too badly and add to an interesting mix. Many houses haven't been restored in decades but yet there is no general decay.
Sadly the biggest attraction of Bucharest is a perverted monstrosity. Ceaucescu's over dimensioned people's palace to the south of the centre is predominantly big and ugly. Its dull allusions of baroque and classic forms end up in an imposing towering uniformity, in spite of all its marble. The grand halls inside hardly can make up for this. No better are the attempts to be stylish in the surrounding far stretching avenues, lined with 12 storied government buildings and apartment blocks all built for the conformists of an oppressive system now toppled for good.
This is part of a free Europe now and you ask yourself how it could be otherwise, just 20 years ago. Bucharest has decent street life. Restaurants and cafes are filled with a rather youthful crowd. A film music festival in front of the former royal palace and a folk music festival in a nearby park take place at the same weekend. Classical music is played frequently and well. Things have an orderly pace and no police visibility is needed. Romania is building again up again, like so often in its history. And it is much better than its crippled reputation.
My expat friend there over dinner on the balcony of a posh French restaurant complains about this and that, rather poor museums, some lack of diversity and entertainment, a provincial attitude of the locals, no real highlights but confirms that in the end this city of 2 Million is not such a bad place to be in.
Living in modern apartments or restored art deco places the expats here are still a lot better off than most of the local city folks, who earn modest salaries, now fear rising unemployment and live in superficially restored apartment blocks of twelve floors or more which line endlessly the streets into the suburbs. First we shape our environment, then it shapes us. Let's hope that they will be able to overcome this massive and still depressing communist legacy.
White skinned people with rounded European features are all you see, some of them rather good looking, although somehow not very sexy to me. A pretty uniform crowd. The big gypsy community still stands out visibly with darker features and is generally unpopular with the others.
The history museum has a poor collection of Roman finds and a plaster replica of Rome's Trajan column which hails the emperor's successful fight against the Dakians, Rumania's mystic ancestors. Nearby in the former Royal castle you can visit quite a decent collection of European and Romanian painting and sculpture. Somewhat worn out I rented a bicycle and toured the city's broad boulevards on a hot Sunday in June. After examining the mildly interesting finds on a flee market I ended up swimming and dozing in a public pool.
Excursion to Sinaia and Brasov
You have seen most of Bucharest in two days. My intention was to head to Constanta and the Black Sea Coast, 100 km to the East of town, but everyone I asked recommended rather to cross the Karpatian mountains north of town and visit Transsylvania. That's a much more typical place for Romania they said. So I took off two days more to go there.
Two hours north of town in Sinaia, King Carol's former fairy tale mountain residence, the air is clear and cool. The place is a skiing and summer resort where you can take the cable car up to peaks of more than 2500 meters and gaze over the rounded Karpatian mountains, gracefully descending towards the fertile Danube plains around Bucharest on one side and the Transsylvanian highlands on the other. It is really nice up here, above the tree level, which runs already at about 1500 meters - less imposing than in the Alps and less rugged than the Pyrenees still with quite a bit of a mountain feeling. It could be a great place for long hikes on empty trails. This is a big country, two thirds of the size of Germany and it has only 20 million inhabitants and few tourists so it never will become too crowded on the trails.
Brasov in Transsylvania at the foothills beyond is my overnight stop. The town was founded by German settlers who came here by invitation of the former Hungarian rulers. They helped to defend the area against the Turks, 800 years ago. Kronstadt or crown town is the German name of the place and in the center it still does look like a provincial town of the Austro-Hungarian crown. A big gothic church and a triangular historic main square are its nicest features. The old town lies next to the mountains and you can take a cable car up Tampa mountain and from there enjoy a beautiful view over the town below and the surrounding plains with their intermittent mountains. Another surprisingly nice place. For dinner under umbrellas on the main square I enjoy a rich meal with local specialties while a thunderstorm washes away the serene summer street life before my eyes.
In the villages of this area you find many fortified churches or rather church castles, perhaps the most unique of the tourist highlights of the country. They tell a lot about the history of the place. This area was under Hungarian or Austrian rule most of the time but Turks and Tartars were really close and every once in a while liked to pay visit to their neighbours, looting, robbing and killing. If you could hide yourself and the most valuable of your farmer's belongings in a fort fast enough you could outlast them and then rebuild what had been destroyed outside. Not ideal but all alternatives probably were worse.
The result of this concept has a neat church inside, which may be early gothic or later, in case the original one was conceived too small or not built solidly enough for the occasional earthquakes. Right around the church runs a wall of up to 5 meters in width and 15 meters in height, at the inside clad with emergency housing and storages, at the outside fortified like a tiny medieval castle, with watchtowers moat and pull up bridge in some cases. In Prejmer/Tartlau and Harman/Honigberg you can visit the best preserved of these architectural treasures.
The churches still belong to the German Lutheran congregation. In Petersberg I got a tour by one of the few remaining members of this old minority, a lady in her late forties with round features and very blue eyes who told me about deportations of her parents to slave labour in the Soviet Union after the second world war, return and expropriations in the fifties, life under Ceaucescu's regime while the community was dwindling and about the sudden exodus to Germany of all but a few ones, after the wall fell in 1989. Now 110 still use a church which could hold hundreds and almost all of them are beyond 60. Twenty years from now this chapter of history will be nothing but a legacy and she knows it, too.
Returning to Bucharest via Rasnov/Rosenau and Bran castle on winding mountain roads through beautiful countryside shows more aspects of this interesting and diverse country. You pass gypsy villages, see really bad roads and poverty, industrial complexes in decay and try to communicate with generous cherry vendors on the roadside. As Romanian is a Latin based language they understand my French more easily than my English.
Wrapping things up
History for me seems to be the key to develop some understanding of this place. Divided between Turkish domination in the south, Hungaro-Austrian rule in the north and Russian claims in the east, with orthodox as well as catholic, protestant and Jewish influences it got a late start as a nation and remains full of diversities. In a patchwork of different ethnic groups they were fortunate to unite all territories with a Romanian speaking majority within their frontiers in 1920. Later they had to endure the communist years. All this did not give them enough time and force to take off to something really great. Nonetheless they developed and preserved numerous small treasures and for an experienced traveller are well worth a visit.
There is more to discover here. I'll have to come back one day for more of Transsylvania, the Moldavian monasteries the Danube delta and an excursion to the Black sea coast.