Friday 17th September 2010, Bran, Transylvania
Tonight we are at Vampire Camping in the village of Bran, just below the castle popularly considered to be the stronghold of the vampire Count Dracula as depicted in the novel by Bram Stoker. Visible from our door, towering against the darkening sky, stands the mysterious silhouette of the Carpathian mountains, a place where wolves and bears still roam through the isolated woodlands. Bram Stoker mixed fact with fiction, so that it is difficult to disentangle it all. The Count Dracula of his novel was inspired by the bloodthirsty warlord, Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia. He was a violent enemy of the Turks who during the middle ages constantly invaded this area of Romania. Transylvania also has a very rich heritage of folk law in which vampires figure prominently. Although Stoker had never visited Transylvania, and knew little about its history, somehow Bran castle has become accepted as the location for Dracula's fiendish activities. In fact it is probable that Vlad never came here but, set high on a rock with the mountains as a backdrop, it makes a romantic setting for the gothic horror tale. As we sat outside eating supper this evening we even had a tiny bat fluttering around our heads! The campsite is remarkably restrained though a bit tacky, with drops of "blood" on the gates and in the showers, but hey, it's all a bit of fun!
As we turned in to the site this evening we found another Romahome! Of course its owners came across immediately to chat. It's very rare that we ever see another one as we travel and we were amazed to find one here. It is owned by a young couple who are spending a year exploring Europe and they have been on the road since June.
Modestine parted company with Huba this morning. We've had a brilliant time travelling together and we have learned so much more than if we had been travelling without Hungarian speakers. The days have passed all too quickly and today Peter and Kati set off to make their way back to Budapest. We will see them next back in Exeter when we return home in November.
We are not far to the north of Bucharest but most people tell us it is not a pleasant place to visit. A few hours driving would have us on the coast of the Black Sea at the Danube delta. Again people say it's not worth the journey involved at this time of year. We considered driving north, to see the painted monasteries and wooden churches of Moldavia, up near the border with Ukraine. However, it involves a lot of extra driving and there is still much to see here. So today we drove up into the Carpathian mountains, winding around countless hairpin bends as we travelled through the forested mountains to reach the popular tourist resort of Sinaia.
It is a fashionable place with a casino and well maintained parkland where people stroll beneath the shady trees. There are many hotels and the place has the air of a spa town. Before exploring we stopped for bowls of soup with meat balls and sour cream on a terrace in the town centre.
Above the park lies a cemetery to those of the town killed in the First World War. Most of the fallen are unknown and unnamed.
Above the cemetery is an orthodox monastery founded in 1690 following a visit to Mount Sinai by Prince Mihai Catacuzino. The town's name presumably stems from then. We did not venture inside but continued via a wooded path to Peleş, the castle of the Romanian Royal Family built between 1875 and 1883 for King Carol I and decorated by his eccentric wife Elisabeta. The Romanians had difficulties when advertising for the post of King for their newly formed state. The crown was first offered to the French imperial family, then to the British, but no interest was expressed. Eventually the Hohenzollerns allocated Prince Karl to take on this role.
Sinaia reminded us rather of Sintra near Lisbon. As there, the castle was built by a German living far from his homeland on a hilltop surrounded by woodland. As there too, the decoration was heavy and totally unlike the local style. Here at Sinaia there are heavy, carved screens and ceilings in walnut wood with massive plate glass mirrors. There are Venetian glass chandeliers, Turkish rugs, wall paintings by Klimt and reproductions of works of art in the National Art Museum in Bucharest. The castle is richly decorated in ebony, leather and mother of pearl. Of the 160 rooms, only 18 are open to the public, all on the ground floor. The castle is currently owned by 89 year old ex-King Mihai I. It was returned to him by the State in 2006.
Nearby stand the smaller Pelişor palace, half-timbered with a mass of pointed turrets, built between 1899 and 1903 for Ferdinand and Marie (one of the many granddaughters of Queen Victoria), the heirs of Carol I.
Saturday 18th September 2010, Bran, Transylvania
Today we went into Braşov on the bus. We could have taken Modestine but it's always more interesting using local transport and today was no exception. Waiting for the bus in the village a van drew up and several people clambered in. The driver signalled to us to climb in as well. So we made the forty minute journey to Braşov squashed into the back of an overfilled minibus without seat belts, with no idea as to where we may end up in the city or how to get back, or indeed how much the fare might be. The windscreen was partially obliterated by a couple of icons of the Virgin Mary, a crucifix and several air fresheners. These last were of definite benefit! Periodically we'd stop for someone to climb in or out. By the time we were dropped off just outside the bus station in Braşov we were the only passengers remaining. The fare was no more than we would have paid on the bus and we arrived considerably sooner. We have concluded the driver is enterprising enough to simply drive along a few minutes before the bus is due and pinch all the passengers!
Unfortunately the bus station was four kilometres from the town centre with no connecting bus route! Would you believe that!! We had to take a taxi to the main square! Fortunately the fares are cheap in Romania and we had an honest driver. We are completely in their hands.
We liked Braşov from the start. The old town is clean and open, centred around the Piaţa Sfatului or Council Square with streets leading off from it, some of which are pedestrianised, with pleasant cafes and restaurants down the centre. On all sides are well restored buildings from the 17th to the 20th century. These include the main Council Offices and the Orthodox Cathedral.
Nearby stands the huge gothic church known as the Black Church, built, destroyed and restored several times during its history. Inside there is an excellent exhibition of Turkish prayer rugs and another on the life of Johannes Honterus. A disciple of Martin Luther, Honterus lived and worked in Braşov and led the Protestant Reformation in the area. In 1535 he established the first printing press in Transylvania.
Visible too from the square are the two defensive towers known as the black and white towers, intended to protect the city from the constant attacks of the Turks.
Braşov has a population of around 350,000 and today is one of the largest Romanian cities. The historic centre though is mainly Baroque and has a German feel to it. We have heard more German spoken here than anywhere in Romania. The town is surrounded by towering hillsides, one with a cable car to carry visitors to the forest walks above the town.
Braşov was one of a number of cities across the country that was heavily involved in the revolution of 1989, resulting in the overthrow of the Ceauşescu dictatorship. There are several monuments around the city to those who died. They are regarded as martyrs of the revolution. In a pleasant public garden beneath shady trees we found the graves of some of those who had been gunned down on 23rd December 1989, amongst them that of a little girl of six caught in the cross fire. As we watched, a gentleman, holding the hand of his granddaughter, pointed out the graves and recounted to her what happened here twenty years ago. He may well have been there on that night. There are still bullet marks on the walls of a nearby bank while in the Black Church, shrapnel has damaged one of the pillars where a gun was fired through the door at those seeking shelter from the fighting.
It's Saturday and every church had brides queuing up at the doors. We paused to watch a wedding in the Orthodox Cathedral. Just a small family group clustered together around the bride and groom. At the door we were accosted for money. It's the only time it has happened today. Generally the people look well dressed and fashionable. Everyone is Romanian. Hungarians and Gypsies seem to have completely disappeared.
We have been walking around the town all day, apart from a brief stop for lunch and later, at the nicest cake shop in town, for Ian to indulge in a chocolate, cherry and whipped cream concoction that really was as good as it looked - with a price tag to match.
Eventually we decided to head for home. Finding a taxi is no problem, they are the chief form of transport around the city. Telling the Romanian driver where we wanted to go was less easy! Only when we requested to be taken to the bus station did we discover there are three! "The one for buses to Bran Castle", we managed to say. The driver then wanted to take us to the castle! "No, just the bus station". "But it will take you over two hours to get there and back. I will take you, wait for you and bring you back for 60 lei", insisted our driver. All this we managed to understand but without any vocabulary to explain we only wanted to go to the nearby campsite, all we could do was repeat that we only wanted the bus station. He was friendly and chatty and eventually dropped us exactly where we wanted to be, pointing out which stand the bus would leave from. He shook our hands and drove off waving, no doubt thinking we were silly not to take up his offer.
When the bus arrived we were inclined to agree. Almost certainly in use since the era of Ceauşescu, it was suffocatingly hot, filthy dirty, the seats and curtains in shreds, holes through the side where the rust had eaten it away, and an engine that was so clapped out we crawled the 30 kilometres back to Bran. At every slope we expected to get out and push. The rear door remained open while the bus was moving, only to jam shut when it reached a drop-off point. It was packed with passengers and stopped at every village we passed through. It only cost us about a euro each though and we think we were actually entitled to half price as pensioners but couldn't face the linguistic effort involved in explaining it to the driver.
Back on the campsite we cooked supper while a party of eight Romanians enjoyed a noisy barbeque a couple of pitches away. During the evening they have been drinking steadily and have been getting ever more noisy. Romanians are like Italians for the noisy way they enjoy life, oblivious to those around them. I feel very sorry for other campers in tents. At least we can mute the sound of shouting, singing and classical opera by shutting the doors and windows. This is their country though so I'll leave it to the Germans here to complain. As a nation German campers are rarely backward at coming forward when it comes to objecting to noise.
Sunday 19th September 2010, Cartâ, Transylvania
This morning we left Modestine in the company of the largest green cricket we have ever seen and walked up to the village of Bran, dominated by the castle.
Since Bram Stoker wrote his gothic horror novel Dracula, Bran Castle has come to be linked with it. There is though, no evidence either that Stoker had this castle in mind, or that there were any serious links with Vlad the Impaler, son of Vlad Dracul. Its location does however provide a fitting setting for such a tale of blood, vampires and spine chilling horrors. Set above the village, with a backdrop of pine forests, overshadowed by the Carpathian Mountains, it easily stirs the imagination.
The village centre was already busy with coach parties arriving. This is the only place in Romania we have set eyes on Japanese tourists. There were stalls crowded around the base of the castle selling everything from traditional Transylvanian ceramics and embroidered table linen to vampire masks and even black Dracula ice-cream.
The castle turned out to be very tastefully arranged and an extremely pleasant experience. It was formerly a royal residence and the home of Queen Marie of Romania, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and wife of King Ferdinand. She used the castle as a retreat from the formality of Bucharest. Later the castle was occupied by her daughter Princess Iliena and other members of the royal family. Following the Second World War they were ordered by the Communists to leave Romania immediately. The castle today is furnished much as it would have been, with heavy Victorian sideboards, tables and dressers and Biedemeier armchairs. Access to the rooms was at times difficult, achieved by narrow passages within the walls linking the different floors. There are family photos throughout the castle and we were left with the feeling that both the Queen and her daughter were exceptional women, artistically gifted, writers and thinkers who did much to bring Romania to the attention of the world, working as nurses to help the victims of the Balkan wars and setting up cholera camps there.
A gallery covered the life of Bram Stoker and the background to how he came to write his best-selling novel, set in the remote, distant land of forests and mountains. (Actually much of Transylvania is flat and there is remarkably little woodland.)
Another gallery explained the historical significance of Vlad Dracul, The name was applied to him because of his bloodthirsty nature. The word means Devil. His son, Vlad the Impaler became known as the son of the devil or Dracula. Like his father, he was merciless with his foes, taking delight in cruelty.
Of course the castle also had a section on vampires and Romanian folk legends, fascinating reading at the time but nothing to do with the Stoker's fantasy novel. The nearest we got to seeing a vampire was the lady serving in the souvenir shop! She must surely have been selected for the job for her black hair and gothic charms.
During the afternoon we drove beneath the mountain range towards Sibiu. At first we followed a route marked in yellow on our map. This should have been a reasonable road taking us through some of the interesting little villages. It had been surfaced once upon a time but is now deeply pitted with ruts and potholes and made for rather scary driving. However carefully and slowly we crawled along, we'd drop a wheel into a deep round hole from time to time. As soon as we could we returned to the main road – the only road – leading across Romania! It has a perfectly good surface but no effort has been made to improve elsewhere, money being spent purely on the development of a motorway and the very few major roads carrying international traffic.
Once we turned off again, to find this picturesque village with the remains of a Cistercian monastery and a Dutch run campsite, we were back in almost mediaeval Romania. The roads were unmade, dust-baths when it's dry, quagmires when it's wet. Dogs, chickens and geese variously slept, scrabbled and waddled around the streets and almost the only form of transport was the horse and cart. A pony passed us making its own way home unattended. It had obviously been a German village with inscriptions in gothic script on many of the older buildings.
We found that the monastery church was open, now used as the Luthern place of worship, so we were able to see the simple wooden decorations inside the vaulted interior. Most of the monastic precincts had disappeared but there was an enclosure in front of the church with rows of graves of the German inhabitants, laid to rest there generations ago.
Ian asked the young woman who was the keyholder whether there were any German residents left. Only a few, she replied, in a fluent but strangely pronounced German, perhaps seventy in this and adjoining communities who might attend services. With the change of regime in 1989 all those who could, left for Germany. There were no opportunities for work and the villages were dying. Young people were leaving for the towns and the German way of life would not survive. She was despondent about the future of Romania. There had been little progress over the past twenty years. Money for investment had disappeared into people's pockets and there was no confidence among outside investors. There could be no development in the villages unless the transport infrastructure was improved. At least in Ceauşescu's time there was work for all who wanted it – and "arrangements" for those who didn't. Now goods were in the shops but many people had no money to buy them. We tried to sound supportive but left her, worried that so many people in Romania seem to have such sad, negative lives.
A large panel in the village announced joint European and state funding to supply the village with a water purification plant and improved water mains to provide good drinking water. We asked the campsite owner whether the water was drinkable and she advised against it unless it was boiled. So, that explains some of the problems we have been having over the past few days! And we had been blaming it on the Remoska and my cooking.