When we put one of these postings together, we usually include at least something of the history of the country, but present day Romania was only unified in the late nineteenth century. Even in the minds of the Romanians today, it is still most strongly felt as a confederation of historic regions, each with its own history but obviously in relation to its neighbors. Certainly Transylvania in the center, Wallachia in the south, and Moldavia to the northeast have been the most pervasive and the strongest areas. But much of the country, like most of the nations in the region, was under the domination and control of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and afterwards the Hungarians ruled large areas of what is now Romania as well. Theirs has been a long and rather tortured history, and quite honestly it continues today with widespread corruption and a tendency toward despotism that has been difficult to moderate.
Among those figures from Romania’s past, the most famous has to be Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula, made famous around the world with the publication of Bram Stoker’s novel in 1897. Now there is no denying that Vlad existed, and ruled much of what was Romania in the fifteenth century.
And certainly his label is deserved, for while he fought valiantly against Turkish invaders, he also seemed to relish impaling as an effective and intimidating form of torture and execution. However long Vlad/Dracula has been associated with Bran Castle, at best he only spent a few nights there back in 1462. Built by German Saxons in 1382 to defend Bran pass from the Turks, it is now widely known as Dracula’s Castle.
One would expect it to be dark, gloomy and full of dungeons and torture chambers, but in fact it’s bright and airy with a wonderful courtyard which extends all the way to its peak, almost two hundred feet above the foundation. From 1920 until the eviction and exclusion of the monarchy in 1947, it was home to Queen Marie, whose heart is buried in the mountainside beside the castle.
As some indication of its appeal to the dark side, we stayed in the Vampire Campground for four days of pouring rain, and were at the castle about a week before Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp and the Hollywood Vampires showed up while on tour in Bucharest.
We next headed for the city of Sibiu in central Transylvania and it’s absolutely beautiful and lively. It was the European City of Culture in 2007 and the remnants seemed to surround us wherever we went. Its central square was the finish line of a marathon the day we visited, but once all the runners dispersed, we easily appreciated its expanse and quietude.
The view from the top of the cathedral’s tower is also dramatic, what with the glazed tiles of its roof in the foreground and the city’s second most important plaza lined with restaurants in the distance.
So many of the older buildings had what we came to call “Eyelid Windows.” You can see them in the photo above, but here is one of our favorites demonstrating them as well. They are not traditional gabled windows, but slits in the roof, as if the building is sneaking a look at what is going on below.
Many of the restaurants in the second plaza have outdoor seating surrounded by flower boxes,
But we found the same to be true in the side streets as well. That’s the cathedral tower in the background. Bonnie wants everyone to know that she climbed to the top while Dave sat below drinking coffee.
Even this tiny restaurant on the stairs leading to the lower town had flowers in its two windows.
Many of the streets in the lower town were wonderfully improvised and seemed to just breath with a sense of the past, here with a huge buttress over the street to hold up two opposing buildings.
Leaving Sibiu behind, we went northwest to a region called Southern Bucovia, part of the state of Moldovia and famous for its amazing painted and fortified monasteries. Most dating from the sixteenth century, these monasteries were enclosed with very strong walls and in the era of threat from the Ottoman Empire, were often filled with soldiers as well as monks. Here is the entrance and part of the fortifications at the Moldovita Monastery.
Their fame, however, is the product of the amazing frescoes which decorate not just the insides of their churches, but the outsides as well. Below is the view of the same gate looking inward.
While five centuries of weather, including plenty of snow and ice in winter, have taken their toll, particularly on the north facing sides, the remaining walls are still vibrant with color to this day. Here is the church in the Sucevita Monastery, and note the fortifying wall and towers in the background as well.
To give you some idea of the intensity of the frescoes at all of these churches, here are three photos of just one, the Voronet Monastery. It is famous for its predominant blue color, derived in part from ground lapis lazuli.
Since almost all of the inhabitants were illiterate in those days, the wall paintings served to educate them to the biblical stories and ethical issues they illustrated. Their interiors are vivid as well, though in earlier times only the nobility entered for services. The peasantry listened from outside. Here is a bit of the interior of the church at the Humor monastery.
It is interesting to note that while these were all built to house male monks and did so for centuries, they are now all occupied and utilized by nuns. In fact, in the Dragomirna Monastery, there are sixty nuns in residence.
This is not to say that all the monasteries in the area are four or five centuries old. Outside the town of Barsana is an enormous monastery, still under construction, which stretches over acres and acres and draws thousands of pilgrims every year.
It is so artful and huge that there is no way we could capture its size in a single photograph. It includes several churches, a number of structures to provide housing for pilgrims, a museum, an industrial sized kitchen and what looks like a conference center. Gazeboes are scattered over the grounds and seem to be used for religious services.
There is an immense amount of money and resources pouring into the monastery in Barsana, but at least it is truly beautiful in both design and execution.
From Moldavia we went west to Maramures, much of our visit chronicled in our last posting. What we did not discuss, however, were the beautiful wooden churches which dot that region’s valleys. Most built of oak in the 1700’s, they have a simple stateliness about them, even when their age is masked under a relatively new shingled roof.
To give you an example, here are some photographs of the church in the village of Ieud. Its exterior is spare, vertical and graceful, with a broad overhanging roof edge.
Note as well the multi-sided apse at the end of the rectangular church body.
It is formed and held together with exquisite dovetail joints, common in furniture and particularly in drawers. These are so much more complex here, however, because the pieces do not come together at a right angle and the scale of the pieces only makes their construction more difficult. It would take a team of men just to fit the pieces together.
Inside it is ablaze with primitive color. Textiles, framed icons, folk art and paintings decorate its wooden walls illustrating biblical stories.
There is such a beautiful power in the simple folk culture these Maramures wooden churches bring to fruition.
In something of the same vein, we finished our stay in Marmamures with a trip to the town of Sapanta and what is called the Merry Cemetery. A small part of it makes up the photograph at the top of this posting. These crosses were initially the work of a local woodcarver named Ioan Stan Patras, begun in 1935 to mark graves in the old cemetery. They are predominantly blue, the color of hope and freedom, and now cover acres surrounding the church. Each is absolutely unique, with a portrait of the deceased individual at work at his or her occupation. Thus in the photo at the top you can easily make out a woman at her loom weaving in the center. Here is another view.
In this photo you can see, from the left, a woman in her kitchen cooking, a soldier in blue uniform with gun in hand, a logger with caliper measuring timber, a farmer with a sythe over his shoulder, and a woman hanging clothes. While Patras died in 1977, and is prominently buried with his own painted cross, his work continues with other craftsmen carrying on in his home and studio. Altogether, it is truly a place of joy.
And speaking of joy, we conclude with a short trip on an old narrow gauge steam engine through the forests of Romania. Over twenty-seven percent of Romania’s land area is forested, so logging and timber milling are major industries. Out of the town of Viseu des Sus runs a number of engines which travel deep into the forests to haul out the logs once they are cut. We think we counted five steam engines and three more conventional and modern diesel engines, as well as several motor cars modified to run on the narrow tracks for maintenance crews.
Our trip took us deep into the woods on a very rainy day, with lunch at the turn around point for a total of about five hours. The cars we rode in still contained signs from their prior life in the Lauterbrunnen Valley of Switzerland where we spent time and wrote about in an earlier posting, and where they were part of a narrow gauge railway which took passengers up to a glacier in summertime.
Enough! Come on, climb aboard!
Bonnie has put together an additional Flickr gallery for this posting as well. It is at https://www.flickr.com/photos/10627404@N00/albums/72157669701882616
Take a look!