20th – 28th October, 2007
Saturday 20th October 2007
Having stayed overnight at the Sheraton Skyline hotel at Heathrow, we left on Tarom airlines for Bucharest and after an 80 minute delay in departure arrived early evening. We met the other 12 members of our group and headed off by coach for our first night’s stay at the Palace Hotel, Sinaia.
The group members were Mac and Linda, Peter and Ivy, Ted and his daughter Kate, Christine (later discovered to be Lady Skelmersdale) and her mother Joyce, Meg and Jane, Diana and finally Howard.
Sunday 21st October 2007
Imagine our surprise to open curtains and find it snowing. Whilst the tree covered park and hills looked beautiful in the snow, it was rather a shock having been in Cuba just 11 days earlier. We had not anticipated such cold weather and Adrian did not have suitable footwear on the first trip out, which was to Peles Castle. This trip proved quite a battle as there was a long walk down a fairly steep slope.
The Palace had been built at the expense of the Royal family in the 1860s. Germany had been invited to provide a king for Romania to help keep out the Turks. The Palace shows fantastic craftsmanship and, as might be expected, a heavy German influence, with much heavily carved dark wood. It is truly fairy tale in its appearance. There are many chandeliers with Murano glass and other traditional furnishings. However, the Palace was also provided with such modern facilities as central heating and a central vacuum system.
We left the Palace to take a road over the mountains to Bran Castle and then to Brasov. However, the snow had become worse and the road was impassable. We therefore continued on the main road first to Brasov, where our guide Razvan lived. This road also passed over the mountains and was steep and twisting. Despite heavy traffic, the road was thick in snow and the snail-like progress was further hampered by vehicles struggling in the opposite direction. Many were stranded in ditches and in the centre of the road.
Bran Castle again presented considerable difficulty of access because of the snow and a steep path and step is leading to it. Our group comprised several people older than ourselves and two (Jane and Joyce) had sticks to help them walk.
The castle had been built in 1377 with a further storey added in the 17th century. In the 1920s Queen Mary (who was English) adapted it for modern living and it reminded us of the work of Lutyens. It is traditionally known as the home of Dracula as it was occupied in the 14th century by Count Vlad who had a fearsome reputation for torturing people. He was later painted as a vampire by Bram Stoker who adapted various items of folklore from Transylvania.
We returned to Brasov, a city of some 300,000 people with a mediaeval centre and the remains of town walls. There were some lovely buildings including the Black Church which was surrounded by 16th and 17th century college buildings of the German school. Like a number of places in Transylvania, the Germans had a considerable presence and, indeed, German was the principal language. Following the collapse of communism, the majority of the Germans have now left despite many families having been in this area for some 800 years. During communist times people could move back to Germany on payment to the government. After this a large number have returned and a number of villages have become depopulated. Later in the trip we saw this for ourselves when we visited a fortified church on the outskirts of Sibiu.
The journey back to the hotel in Sinaia was long and slow and we arrived around 8 p.m.. This was to become quite a tradition on this holiday.
Background information on Romania
Population: 21 million. Average income £300 per month. January 2007: joined the EU.
The country is twice the size of the UK but has only one third of its population.
2000 years ago the area was known as Dacia pronounced "Dachia” when it was invaded by the Romans. Trojan's column represents the victory of Rome over Romania. They built roads and towns and also crossed the Danube in 106 AD by means of a breach which they built and the piles of which still remain. The extreme north of the country was never occupied by the Romans. It is traditionally thought that the name Romania relates to this period of their history. Later there was a Slavic influence in the seventh and eighth century on the culture and language and Orthodox Christianity was introduced. The Cyrillic alphabet was used until the mid-19th century.
The various states were united in 1600 in a week alliance and reunited in 1918.
Later Goths and Visigoths migrated across the country. Hungarians migrated to Transylvania around 1000 years ago and some villages retain this character. Indeed, one area has schools and universities operating in the Hungarian language and they are looking for autonomy. The Knights Teutonic were asked to help defend the South after the Crusades and they built fortresses and castles. Despite this, in the 13th century, Turks and Tartars came bringing a Muslim influence although the Christian beliefs remained, unlike in Bulgaria. The locals invited Saxon people to come and settle the area to help defend the Borders. Fortified towns were built such as Brasov and Sighisoara and fortified churches were built in villages. There are 500 of these. The people were good craftsmen and developed Guilds.
Gypsies came from north India. They are tolerated in Romania but seemed to have a very similar reputation to the one they have in the UK. On the whole they do not own houses, but some do and these tend to be very large and ostentatious with turrets and towers. Some of the country's best musicians are Gypsies.
The Carpathian Mountains occupy the centre of Romania and curve through a right angle. This includes the area of Transylvania.
Since 1989 people have been permitted to own their own houses. There seemed to be a fair number and most seemed to be of individual design. Generally the style of house varies from region to region and whilst many are relatively small, they are both larger and more substantially built then the vast majority of housing that we saw earlier this month in Cuba. The houses are generally well cared for. An interesting feature is that many are built end-on to the road and often have agricultural buildings attached to the far end. The result is a long narrow strip of buildings leading back from the road frontage. In some parts fence tops and rooms were elaborately decorated as were well heads. Most houses continue to use the wells, although these may often be pumped. The houses are largely single storey in Transylvania but in Moldova two-storey and larger.
Raz told us that some of the houses were holiday homes and others, particularly unfinished ones, were being financed by people living abroad and sending money home. Planning permission is needed for an area but not for individual buildings. Once granted, everyone can take advantage of it. Prices have risen rapidly and initially foreigners bought properties but now more locals are doing so. Mortgages are beginning to be used and interest rates are 7 to 10%, but extra fees bring this up to a level of 15 to 17%. There has been inflation, but this no longer appears to be at exceptional levels. In the early 1990s, prices went up 3000 fold. Earlier this year new currency was introduced. It is not helped by prices sometimes being quoted in the old currency which has four zeros at the end but is often abbreviated e.g. 13 lei is equal to the old currency amount of 130,000 lei.
There are also quite a lot of new churches being built. Whilst religion was tolerated in communist times, a very high percentage of people now go to church although it is clear that there is a fair amount of superstition attached to beliefs.
Our impression, probably partially influenced by Cuba, is that the country is undoubtedly poorer than much of Europe but is certainly not a poor nation. There are many cars and none of these seem in a bad state of repair. There are many signs of prosperity are also many villages where time seems to have passed by.
Apparently there is up to 18 months pay for unemployment . Pensions are paid at the age of 65 to 68 but only if contributions have been made.
Farming remains a significant part of the economy. Cows and sheep are often kept in small numbers by individual households and then cared for by a single Shepherd who looks after them in the day and returns them to their houses in the evening. Sheep are milked and cheese is made on quite a large scale. Each rural family owns a strip of land which seems to be about 30 feet by 300 to 400 feet. This may be fair, but it is certainly not conducive to efficient farming with machinery. Tractors are used but so are horses. Some is subsistence farming but some people also have other jobs. We noticed strip farming throughout the regions in which we travelled. We also noted sacks of potatoes and other produce either side of the road where they were awaiting collection following being grown on an individual family basis. It was possible to reclaim land that had been taken over by the Communists, but only up to a maximum of 10 ha. The government is seeking to encourage amalgamation of units but the people seem reluctant to agree to this even though the smaller units have the difficulties mentioned.
Education is free, even at University level (for the first degree). Children do not go to school until they are six or seven and for four years: leave after half a day. They attend school in shifts as there are insufficient schools to accommodate all children at the same time. They take the baccalaureate. In communist times it was quite usual for the children to be taken out of school to help with the harvest.
The passing of the communist era seems not to be mourned although it was acknowledged that some good things did occur and some of the older generation miss the security that full employment offered. Nevertheless, there was rationing and queuing. Where people had money to spend, there was nothing to buy. There was one television channel operating for about two hours a day and this was largely propaganda. All material was censored although there was some quite good drama. Abortion and contraception were illegal and this may account for the dreadful orphanages with which we are so familiar. There were some cars but petrol was rationed and had to be purchased from a specified garage in the owner’s area. Therefore long distance travel was very difficult.
There were separate shops for the communist party members and for foreigners. These were better stocked. Most things could be bought on the black market with the payment of hard currency. Food was exported to other communist countries.
Upon graduation the government would provide a job, but it might be elsewhere and it might not be exactly what the person wanted. There was virtually full employment and flats were provided at very low rent. To obtain a good position and work, it was necessary to belong to the Communist party.
It was not possible to speak freely because of the secret police and informers. Neither was one allowed to listen to what was happening in the West and it was almost impossible to travel there.
Our guide's grandfather was a lawyer. In common with many of the intelligentsia he was sent to work on a canal project in the 1950s so as to re-educate him. He spent two years there following simply being rounded up from his home. Later he re-trained as a priest and continued in this role until his early 90s.
Monday 22nd October
Raz had become a father only four weeks previously and it was suggested to him that he went home on Sunday evening and we would collect him on our way through Brasov on the Monday morning. The roads were considerably better and by nine o'clock we had picked him up and were on our way.
It was a long road journey through the eastern Carpathians. We stopped at Varatec monastery, one of 300 in the country. Whilst it is called a monastery it is in fact occupied by 420 nuns. It was built between 1808 and 1812. We visited the church and also a Museum of icons where we were addressed by an English-speaking nun.
In the evening we reached Piatra Neamt where we stayed in the Central Hotel for two nights. The weather remained cold and there was continuous and quite heavy rain.
Tuesday 23rd October
The weather was the same as the previous day but we continued to what was regarded as the highlight of the tour. This was a visit to three painted churches. These date from the 16th century and are decorated both inside and out. It became clear that a particular pattern emerged but each one was very different. The first was Humor, the second Voronet and finally Moldovita. All paintings are in the Byzantine style and worked in fresco. There are eight such churches in the northern part of Romania and they form part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. All form part of monasteries which remain active.
The paintings are very colourful. Some have been restored but particularly the lower levels have suffered from severe weathering and also from graffiti – some more than a hundred years old. They portray some scenes from the Bible, but are largely stories of saints. Particularly graphic were the scenes of heaven and hell and the battle for souls.
We retraced our steps from the mountains and onto the empty roads of the extreme north of Romania and again spent the night at Piatra Neamt.
Wednesday 24th October
Setting out, again in the rain, we headed for Bicaz Gorge. This was a spectacular journey through limestone country with cliffs rising about 3000 feet on each side of the narrow passage - through which runs the road and river. There were a few wayside stalls selling various souvenirs, but fortunately most of these were shut down. The weather had obviously deterred the traders and possibly other visitors as there were few passing vehicles. We walked some of the distance up the gorge before rejoining the coach.
We moved on to the town of Sighisoara which apparently is one of the best preserved fortified mediaeval towns in south-eastern Europe. We walked through the ancient gateway in the walls of the town and into the central square. Here the buildings date from about the 16th century with some having been rebuilt later following a fire. They are painted in a number of different colours, a feature that we saw in subsequent villages in the area. We enjoyed a simple lunch of bean soup, served in a tall, hollowed-out loaf. It was very tasty.
We then visited the clock tower which also contains a Museum of Furniture and other artefacts. From here we split up to return to the coach about an hour and a half later. Jill and I took the covered passageway upstairs to the church and then had a coffee in the house where Vlad was born.
Raz’s wife was born in Sighisoara and he showed us the church and the building where they had had the reception. Apparently in Romania the guests pay for the wedding by making gifts at the time of the reception. The godparents of the couple (specially appointed for the occasion of the wedding) have a greater role in the wedding ceremony then the parents themselves.
Finally that day, we went to Sibiu where we stayed in the Continental Hotel.
Thursday 25th October
Today contained a double blessing. Firstly we have no long road journeys. Secondly the sun was shining.
We enjoyed a walk around the old town of Sibiu which contains many graceful 18th century buildings around a huge square. There were also two smaller squares with similarly elegant buildings. There is an older section of huddled houses lying slightly below these areas. We visited the evangelical (meaning here: Lutheran) Cathedral dating to about 1900, a Catholic Church of around 1700 and a Lutheran church of 1500. It was interesting seeing the different styles.
Our lunch on this occasion was at a farmhouse in the nearby village of Sibiel, a very small settlement at the foot of the mountains and a fair distance from the main road to Bucharest. The meal was a traditional Romanian dish of stuffed cabbage leaves. As this involved pork we largely avoided these but enjoyed some tomatoes in cheese. After this Jill and I were summoned out of the building by Raz, and given traditional Romanian costumes to wear in order to serve the desert to our party. The costumes comprised embroidered white shirts with a black waistcoat and black hat for Adrian. As the hat was entirely circular, it was very difficult to keep it on the head!
We looked around the small village taking photographs and then visited a collection of glass icons in a museum next to the church. These are painted on the reverse side of a sheet of glass. It is necessary to paint small features such as the eyes first, before one can paint the face over these. It would seem very difficult to do, yet most of the icons were painted by amateurs over the last 200 years. The quality and styles varied considerably but some were quite amazing.
On the way to the hotel in Sibiu we made a final stop at a fortified church. Apparently there were about 500 of these in Romania. They were used as refuges for villagers at the time of any attack. Whilst we looked around the surrounding area, Raz tracked down the old lady who kept a key for the church. She was a German of perhaps 70 years of age. She told us that there had been 3000 Germans in the village but there were now only 50. Unlike some of the churches we had seen, this did have furniture in it -- often the congregations simply stand in the unfurnished church. On the balcony, there was a large pipe organ which Mac and Joyce took turns to play, filling the church with some lovely music.
That evening we decided to join some of the others who were visiting a cultural show with a meal. This proved great fun and extremely lively. There were traditional dances from three or four areas of Romania as well as singing. The meal was also one of the best that we had enjoyed.
Saturday 27th October
Our final day included a city tour in the morning.
We had been prepared for the worst by very damning reports in the small guide book to Romania but in fact Bucharest still has a number of attractive buildings. Apparently some 7000 or more houses were demolished along with 70 churches in order to make room for the Palace of Parliament, which is the second-largest administrative building in the world. Again, this attracted the description of "soulless" in the guide book but in fact we felt it to have been executed to a largely better standard than we had feared. There is a good amount of architectural detail and some craftsmanship. Mac, who is an engineer working for the Bryant group, pointed out certain defects which he felt were due to lack of care and a rush to finish the work. Ceausescu had ordered work be started in 1984 and it was 70% finished at the time that he was executed on the 25th December 1989 following being deposed four days earlier. It was indeed the work of a megalomaniac designed to enhance his own glory rather than meet the needs of this communist society. Apparently one quarter of the GDP was spent on it in some years. In addition to the huge building there was an avenue lined with much more attractive blocks of flats then were usually achieved. Clearly he was seeking to imitate parts of Paris.
Our final visit as a group was to an open air museum of traditional buildings. This had been started in 1935 and occupies a large site not far from Victory Square in the city. The place was exceedingly crowded due to a festival showing a traditional Romanian wedding ceremony and customs.
After returning briefly to the hotel, we walked to the Military Club where we enjoyed a perfectly acceptable meal in what we imagined was originally a ballroom. It was ornately decorated in white and gold.
We had little further time before setting out again. This time we joined Christine and Joyce together with Meg and Jane in a visit to the Opera house to see Lucia de Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti. Whether it was the production or inability to understand the words of an Italian opera helped only by Romanian subtitles, we found this tragic opera in fact quite comic. The main reason for this was the attempt to portray certain people who had died by use of white netting and white costumes.
Our hotel had been used for a christening party for the afternoon and evening. Nevertheless, the receptionist, who had proved very helpful throughout, personally made us some sandwiches for a late night supper before we did our last-minute packing ready for an early departure the next day.
The whole trip had been extremely enjoyable if somewhat tiring. It showed Romania to be quite different from what we had anticipated. How often this is the case! It is certainly a beautiful country and seems on its way to greater prosperity. We hope that the features that make it so interesting and different from other European countries will not entirely disappear.