When? September 2009
Who? Group tour
Bucharest, Romania’s capital since 1832. According to legend, it was named after a shepherd called Bucur who was in love with a young lady named Dâmboviţa, (the river that flows through the city). Bucharest has contradictory reviews -drab and dull or modern and bustling. It turns out to be a mix of elegance and communist excess, if a little faded in parts. It’s situated on the Danube Plain, set amidst a series of lakes and spacious gardens. I’m not convinced its alternative title ‘The Paris of Eastern Europe Bucharest is warranted, despite its copy of ’The Arc de Triomphe’. It’s not the only city to have done that. The main excess comes in the form of the Casa Poporului, ex-President Ceausescu’s extraordinary parliamentary palace. This is the second largest building in the world, behind only the Pentagon. The building is eighty four metres high. It is also the heaviest building in the world.
The main part of my short trip is spent in central Romania – Transylvania. It’s known for medieval towns, the Carpathian Mountains, brown bears – and Dracula. The mountains are home to one of the largest virgin forests in Europe and 400 unique species of mammals, including the Carpathian chamois and sixty percent of the European brown bear population. There’s a lot of pre-tour hype about bears and it’s supposed to be very active preparation for hibernation season, but our guide doesn’t seem optimistic that we will see one on our walk in the Bucegi Mountains and sure enough we don’t. Though there are some large paw prints in the mud. The locals say that here are plenty around- they forage in the bins, leave a trail of garbage behind them and are generally regarded as a nuisance. The mountains are suitably picturesque to compensate.
After our walk we drive to nearby Sinaia, renowned as the ‘Pearl of the Carpathians’ because of its stunning scenery. The first of a series of fantastical fortresses is Peles Castle. It was built for an imported Hohenzollern monarch called Carol and so resembles a Bavarian chateau, decorated with a riot of stained glass, Persian carpets, Renaissance weapons, ebony and mother of pearl. It was the first European castle entirely lit by electrical current. Next, adjacent, equally extraordinary art deco and art nouveau Pelisor Castle, largely the creation of Carol’s wife Marie.
The fortress highlight is the much touted fourteenth century castle at Bran. This is supposedly the home of the archetypal vampire Count Dracula, created by Bram Stoker. Stoker was inspired by the Romanian prince Vlad Tepes, the fifteenth century ruler of Wallachia, also known as Vlad the Impaler ,because he was fond of impaling his enemies and standing them along the roads. However, it seems that there is no evidence whatsoever that the infamous Vlad ever actually lived here and Bram Stoker never even came near Transylvania. Bran’s contents are mostly devoted to the British born Queen Marie of Romania, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who lived here in the early twentieth century. It’s perched on a crag in a valley between two high mountain ranges, and so, more prosaically, controlled the border and was a customs post. At least there are epic views across to the city of Brasov.
Medieval Brasov is picture card perfect, an architectural delight of half-timbered Baroque buildings, cobbled streets, churches, cafes and inns all clustered within Saxon bastions and overlooked by a magnificent fifteenth century Gothic cathedral, the so called Black Church.
The name “Romania” comes from the Latin word “Romanus” which means “citizen of the Roman Empire.”
The Romanian language is 1,700 years old.
Modern Romania was formed in 1859 through the union of Moldavia and Wallachia. The new state, officially named Romania since 1866, gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1877. At the end of World War I, Transylvania, Bukovina and Bessarabia were incorporated into the Kingdom of Romania.
During World War II, Romania was an ally of Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union, until 1944, when it joined the Allied powers and later faced occupation by the Red Army forces. Following the war, Romania became a socialist republic until the 1989 Revolution.
Romania is a developing country and one of the poorest in the European Union
The first ever perfect 10 awarded in the Olympic Games went to Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci for her performance on the uneven bars in Montreal, Canada in 1976.
The earliest Homo sapiens fossils, up to now, were discovered in 2002 in southwestern Romania, in the Cave of Bones. The fossil’s age is estimated at 37,800 to 42,000 years old.
To see more of my photos of Romania, visit this page.