Autumn 2014 we traveled for some six weeks through Romania and Bulgaria, with further excursions to Istanbul and to the Republic of Moldova. A lot of driving, but also many unique experiences, and the chance to get to know this part of Southern Europe. We captured the trip in a series of travelogue entries, a little thinner than usual on personal experience perhaps, but thick on places, occasionally specked with some history (something I didn’t know much about ahead of the trip), and as always, with lots of photos.
01. the Romania & Bulgaria plan
In our quest for unusual places off the beaten tourist track we initially tend to look far away, to distant continents, with unusual tribes of a different culture than ours, unusual villages, with exotic markets and outrigger canoe fishing boats, tall wooden houses or miserable round huts, that look different from our villages, and unusual natural phenomena, like pristine beaches and steaming volcanoes, that we don’t have in our own backyard.
Yet, perhaps we do not always need to go that far. Having met Romanian friends in The Netherlands, who talked enthusiastically about their country, and showed lots of fabulous pictures, too, the idea to go to Romania took root a couple of years ago. What do we know about Romania? Ceaucescu springs to mind, the communist dictator deposed in 1989. Nadia Comaneci, the Olympic gymnast with the perfect ten. A football player or two, a tennis star. Brancusi, a sculpturer. Enescu, a composer of classical music. Not a lot, really. Here is a place pretty much unknown to your average Western European comfort junky. Perhaps a good spot, indeed, to serve as target for one of our extended travels. And write about it. And illustrate it with copious amounts of photos. And perhaps even serve as inspiration for a series of watercolours.
02. Timisoara: The lively capital of Romania’s Banat area, in the north west corner, is a very pleasant first encounter with the country.
We enter Romania near the village of Sannicolau Mare, in the westernmost corner of the country, near the borders with Serbia and Hungary. After having spent most of the afternoon crossing Southern Hungary, from dead and abandoned village to dead and abandoned village, Sannicolau is a refreshing change of scenery. Not the landscape, which is equally flat and boring, if with even fewer trees than in Hungary, but here we see people again, in the streets, in the fields. There are shops again, and there are cafes, full of men drinking. Old people have put their chairs outside and enjoy the late afternoon sunshine. It is Saturday, which is obviously a popular day to get married. Several weddings are underway, guests impeccably dressed, men in suits, women with elegant, colourful dresses. Nobody seems to be bothered that the traffic through the village is blocked for a while, when the bride is escorted to the church.
Our first face-to-face encounter with Romanian people is equally uplifting. Taking a few pictures of the fruit stalls along the road invites some conversation, in a mixture of Romanian, Italian and German, ending up with the fruit seller insisting we accept a small mango as a gift, for whenever we stop the car again. Where in the world?
Suddenly, we are in Timisoara.
03. the Iron Gates: Where the Danube forms the Serbian-Romanian border, the river flows through a number of gorges, which, predictably, have now been dammed.
Today was Danube Day. Not that one can do the entire Danube in a day, Europe’s longest river requires a little more time, but the part of the Danube that separates Romania from Serbia is quite easily traveled in a day or two.
We picked up the river in a village called Moldova Veche (close to, you guessed it, Moldova Noua – the Romanian language has definite similarities with other Latin languages, but more about that later). This is where the Iron Gates National Park starts, covering the river, and the area further uphill, on the Romanian side. “Iron Gates” refers to a series of steep gorges through which the river worms itself southwards through the Carpathian Mountains.
04. Severin: Once-famous Roman town on the Danube, now a mixture of modern and old, both attractive and decrepit
Severin, or rather Drobeta-Turnu Severin, the full name of this town on the Danube, would form a good base for exploring the surrounding Iron Gates National Park.
But the town, at first sight nondescript, does have its own attractions. Some 2000 years ago it gained worldwide fame – the world of that time being limited to the Roman Empire and its Barbarian surroundings, of course – from its bridge over the Danube, a true engineering achievement at the time, 15 meters wide and over 1100 meters long. Today, a few pillars of the original bridge remain, and with a healthy dose of imagination one can recognize the piles of rubble as such.
05. into Bulgaria: Our entry into Bulgaria, in the northwest corner, is both confronting and rewarding: a traffic reality check and castles and mountains
Bulgaria started with a huge disappointment. The ferry across the Danube, from Calafat to Vidin, is no more. This is what European money does to traveling romance: it builds enormous bridges over rivers, crossed before you even realize it, and does away with the ferries, even in a distant corner of the EU like the Romanian-Bulgarian border.
What is also does, it puts the traveler, in this case the independent traveler with his own car, totally on the wrong footing. The tarmac on the bridge was smooth, road quality excellent. Which is not at all what the Bulgarian reality is, of course.
06. Sofia: Bulgaria’s unpretentious and unhurried capital has lots to offer, not in the least an almost complete lack of tourists – which is unjustified
It took us a while before we realized that there was something missing in Sofia (just to be clear, we are talking about the capital of Bulgaria, here). It is a fairly large city, not like Timisoara where you get to the center before you know it. It has plenty of historic attractions, it has a shopping neighbourhood full of upmarket boutiques, with a pedestrian street lined with terraces serving coffee, ice cream and everything else. Right in the centre of town are several leafy parks providing benches in the shade, from where to observe sculptures and monuments. But there are no tourists! It is middle of August, and there are no tourists! – well, except for a loud Spanish-speaking group, but all Spanish-speakers talk loudly when in groups. And it looks like Sofia never gets many tourists, either, because we are not once being approached with offers for tours, shows or tacky souvenirs. That in itself would have been reason enough to come here.
07. the Bulgarian Monasteries: One of the most respected institutions in Bulgaria are its Orthodox Christian monasteries, and some of the nicest are south of Sofia and Plovdiv
Bulgarians overwhelmingly adhere to Orthodox Christianity. You’ll find the occasional synagogue, or Roman Catholic church, there are quite a few mosques, too – from the time Bulgarians converted to Islam under the Ottoman Empire, to enjoy tax breaks -, but mostly, Bulgarians follow the Orthodox church. And throughout Bulgarian history an important element of the church has been the monasteries. Not only thrived these institutions under the First Bulgarian Empire, which dominated the Balkans from 680 until defeat at the hands of Byzantium in 1014 AD – a time during which the monasteries were centres of scholarship, where, amongst other things, the Cyrillic alphabet was developed -, they also managed to maintain and protect Bulgarian culture and tradition during 500 years of Ottoman domination. They also played an important role in what is generally known as National Revival in Bulgaria, the emerging sense of nationhood in the 18th and 19th century, and they even became shelters for early guerilla fighters battling the Turks. As such, the monasteries in Bulgaria are held in high esteem, and many Bulgarians will, whenever they have the opportunity, visit a monastery as a sort of pilgrimage.
08. detour to Istanbul
Although the objective of this journey, and thus this blog, is Romania and Bulgaria, we couldn’t resist the temptation to cross into Turkey for a long weekend Istanbul, a temptation generated by some private arrangements with old friends and acquaintances. After all, Istanbul is so close, no?
In fact, Istanbul proved to be quite a lot further still, a good day’s drive from Plovdiv. And it includes a non-EU border crossing, along the main highway at Edirne – it is at these moments that one starts to appreciate the EU again.
09. Istanbul: A brief visit to Istanbul, captured in 25 photos, some predictable, others less so. Without any claim to give a complete overview of this enormous city
Istanbul doesn’t really fit in this blog. We know it fairly well, from several earlier visits, and we enjoy it every time again. This time, we stayed in Taksim; we did some shopping, walked to the Grand Bazaar in the old town and took a boat ride on the Bosphorus, nothing else. Photos suffice.
10. the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast: Rapidly developing Sozopol and Nesabar, on the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast, contrast with stuck-in-the-past areas further inland
Driving back from Turkey to Bulgaria, we were once again confronted with the differences between these two countries. Heading for the Black Sea Coast, we chose a different border crossing, this time, going north via Kirklaredi and the first Bulgarian village, Aziziye . A much smaller affair than the crossing at Edirme, to be sure, just one cubicle on each side, and nobody is really interested in you, or your car. A few formalities, forms, stamps, and in five minutes we are through. On the Turkish side, an excellent two- to four-lane road climbs up into the mountains, good quality tarmac, and there are even signposts to “Bulgaristan”. On the Bulgarian side – back in the EU, after all – a narrow, potholed road winds down to the first villages and towns, which are probably some of the most depressive we have seen so far. This is how things must have looked 25 years ago, communism at its best, only further run down, by now. The revolution hasn’t reached here, yet, that’s for sure.
For the next hour, or so, nothing changes. Communism still at its best. Desperate villages, decrepit houses, apartment buildings falling apart, nobody on the streets. But then we get closer to what I will call the Bulgarian Riviera, Bulgaria’s hot property zone, and center of international tourism. They didn’t go to Sofia, no, they come straight away to the Black Sea. And forget about loud Spanish-speaking groups, here the Russians rule.
11. Veliko Tarnovo: An old capital town with a lot of atmosphere, and Bulgaria’s most revered fortress
One of the curious things about Bulgaria is that it is full of former capital cities. Every major event in Bulgarian history seems to have called for a new capital. The First Bulgarian Empire was established in the 7th Century, after Bulgar tribes, most likely with a Central Asian nomadic background, landed somehow in the area west of the Black Sea, and the first Khans settled in a place called Pliska, near present-day Shuman in NE Bulgaria. From here they expanded their territory to include most of southeastern Europe, battling Byzantium in the meantime. Over time, the Byzantines proved stronger than the Bulgarians, forcing them to relocate their capitals to Preslav, and later to Ohrid, deep in present-day Macedonia, until Bulgaria was finally beaten and incorporated in the Byzantium in 1018.
However, with Byzantine power in decline, a Second Bulgarian Empire was established in 1185, which had Veliko Tarnovo as its capital. There had been a fortress here since Roman times, perhaps even earlier, and it is easy to see why. The Tsarevets hilltop sports a commanding view over the Yantra River – in itself not a particularly important river, I think, that connects with the Danube. With the increasing success of the Empire, Veliko Tarnovo, or Tarnovgrad, as it may have been called at the time, grew ever more important, according to some Bulgarian sources even rivaling Constantinople. Right!
12. around Veliko Tarnovo: Several towns in the Balkan Mountains around Veliko Ranovo have their own attractions, of a widely varying nature
The mountains around Veliko Tarnovo – technically, these are the real Balkan Mountains, a range that runs from Serbia in an East-West direction to the Black Sea, ie a much smaller area that what is often referred to as the Balkans -, the mountains around Veliko Tarnovo contain a number of other attractive towns.
13. Koprivshtitsa: Perhaps the most touristic village in Bulgaria, yet worthwhile thanks to its superbly restored National Revival houses; and getting there is equally interesting
Firmly on the Bulgarian tourist circuit is the unpronounceable Koprivshtitsa, for its fabulous National Revival houses along cobbles streets, and for its significance as the village where another revolutionary, Todor Kableshkov, declared the rebellion against the Ottoman Turks, in 1876 – never mind that this uprising was only successful after the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878, in which so many Russians died that a church the size of the Alexander Nevsky Church in Sofia was built to remember them.
14. the road to Ruse: Thousands of years of history are exposed on the way to Ruse, from Roman settlement and Middle Age rock churches to 19th Century and Soviet-style architecture
The Bulgaria part of our trip – the shorter half of the trip – is coming to an end. We are heading to Ruse, on the Danube, to cross back into Romania.
On the way, north of Veliko Tarnovo, are the ruins of an old Roman settlement, Nikopolis-ad-Istrum. Nothing like the impressive complexes of theatres and temples along the Turkish coast or Lebanon or Jordan, no, just a small, well laid-out settlement, well explained, too, as to get a good overview of how a Roman town looked like. Tasteful, not over-restored, the pieces of wall remaining are clearly original pieces of wall. Very peaceful, too, this site. Worthwhile the detour.
15. the Bulgaria experience: Despite appearances to the contrary, Bulgaria is actually a very friendly country, with lots of attractions
I said ‘time to move on’, at the end of my previous entry, but perhaps that is a little unfair on Bulgaria. From rather low levels of expectation, we have actually been pleasantly surprised by our Bulgaria experience – even though we spent only some ten days here, not nearly enough to claim an understanding of the culture, of the people and of anything else Bulgarian
16. Bucharest: Superficially soulless Bucharest is a place with lots of big and basic concrete, yet also has its isolated gems, and like it or not, a character of its own
Re-entering Romania is somewhat less exciting as our first entry, two weeks ago. Driving through the outskirts of Ruse, we never have the impression that we are heading for a border – but we do, somehow, and we cross the border control. Subsequently, we cross the Danube, by bridge, a rather old, metal-cage, two-lane affair, into Romania. All the way to Bucharest is an uninspiring drive, through flat countryside, nothing to see – even less than there was in Bulgaria.
Even when we get to Bucharest, things don’t improve, we are driving through industrial suburbs, positively unattractive; our hotel is somewhere in the outskirts of town. In order to get to the centre we need the metro, which is not particularly well signposted, and not very user-friendly once you have managed to get inside. There is very little information posted – modern trains have Romanian and English electronic information boards inside, but most trains are not modern. Never mind, we are experienced travelers, and we manage to get to where we want to start our exploration of Bucharest, at the Palace of Parliament.
17. Curtea de Arges: Curtea de Arges, in Wallachia, is steeped in Romanian history, and not only because it is the burial place of King Carol I
Maybe we need a bit of history first. I know, boring, but Romania is in a way unusual – unusual, because of its undeniably Latin-like population with a Latin-like language in the middle of heavily Slav-dominated Eastern European entities. It all starts with the Roman invasion of what was then Dacia, around 100 years AD, which – or so claim many of the Romanians – left behind Roman blood, or genes rather; meaning sophistication, which almost 2000 years later is still evident. Quite unlikely, of course, as has been pointed out by several non-Romanian historians, because, firstly, Roman legions in those days were manned by Barbarians from all over the Roman Empire, with only a small contingent of officers being of Roman origin, and secondly, the Romans withdrew again barely 150 years later, which leaves a rather short period of domination to establish such an impact on a local population. After all, the Romans have been in England for much longer than just 150 years, yet, everybody will readily agree that there is very little Latin left in English culture.
18. the Carpathian castles: The Carpathian Mountains contain several castles, in various states of (dis-)repair, and many of them tenuously linked to Vlad the Impaler, better known as Dracula
Sooner or later, I will have to bring up the imaginary Dracula, creation of Bram Stoker, and the character he was supposedly modeled on, the Romanian voivode (a kind of prince) Vlad III, better known by his nickname Vlad Tepes – which is Romanian for Vlad the Impaler. Vlad III was the son of Vlad Dracul, which may have meant Vlad the Devil, or perhaps Vlad the Dragon – in any case, the son of Dracul is called Dracula.
19. Brasov: Old Brasov is a nice, German-style town, with an attractive center showing of a relative affluence, perhaps characteristic for Transylvania
Crossing the Carpathians, from Poienari Fortress to Bran Castle, we also move from Wallachia into Transylvania, and it shows. Immediately upon entering the county of Brasov, the roads improve. The villages are still rural villages, but they look better maintained, more affluent, houses better looked after. There are still horse-drawn carts, and still women wearing black, and shapeless dresses, but somehow it all moved a little more upmarket, it seems. Or perhaps it is just slightly better organized.
20. the Bucegi Mountains: Lovely Sinaia, with its houses and palaces, contrasts sharply with the rugged Bucegi Mountains which tower above it
A short way away from Brasov are the Bucegi Mountains, rising to about 2500 meters, and perhaps – or at least as far as we have observed – one of the most beautiful parts of Romania. From the road to Sinaia, the main town here, the steep, craggy mountain sides rise imposingly, almost vertically; which makes Sinaia’s position as prime ski resort in winter, and hiking base in summer, unchallenged, at the base of a cable car up. Obviously, the town has been at it for a while, not only demonstrated by the many exquisite turn-of-the-century houses, but also by Peles Palace at the high end of town, the summer residence built for King Carol I, which took some 40 years to complete.
21. the Saxon villages: The Transylvanian countryside is dotted with Saxon villages, characterised by huge, and very impressive, fortified church complexes
Now here is something quite unique, at least I have never seen anything like it before.
The 12th century Saxon settlers in Transylvania not only founded the seven – or nine – towns that gives the region its German name, Siebenburgen, but they also established over 200 villages. Far more vulnerable than the towns, to raiding groups, but even more so to Byzantine and later Ottoman armies, the villagers fortified their churches, by surrounding them with enormous walls, sometimes 14-15 meters high and perhaps a couple of meters thick. These churches were, of course, of the imposing Roman Catholic sort, not the humble Orthodox types, and with their impressive, part-wooden towers they are visible from afar – perhaps a better defense mechanism would have been to build smaller churches, less ostentatious, but never mind, the best advice always comes too late. In the event, many of the fortified churches contained enough space to protect the whole village population, some even come with individual rooms for families, to live in, during siege. All together, these are striking appearances, right in the countryside.
22. Sighisoara & Sibiu: Two of the original Siebenburgen of Transylvania, Sighisoara and Sibiu are both very attractive, though quite different, towns, each with their distinct historical centre
Two of the nicest Saxon towns in Transylvania are Sighisoara (originally called Schassburg) and Sibiu (Hermannstad). In both cases, and like Brasov, only the old town is of touristic interest, and once again like Brasov, the tourists have found them, and with them the tourist facilities. Justifiably so, I would say, because both towns are really nice, each in a different way.
23. The Transylvania question: A bit more history, featuring the Romanian Royal family and Transylvania, to put things in context (but no claim to be correct, after all, I am no scholar and there other versions…)
Many former colonies of 18th and 19th Century European nations have complained about the random delimitation of their borders, many of which were established at the Conference of Berlin of 1885, and after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WW I. And many claim that border adjustments are called for to reunite same-language peoples, re-establish tribal integrity, or some other reason. However, Europe has had its share of shifting borders, too, throughout its history. Germany and Italy, some of Europe’s biggest countries, only came into existence in their current form rather late in history. And I have said it before, if all the national lobbyists in Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria would be successful in their drive to recreate the Greater Albania, the Greater Macedonia or the Greater Bulgaria, along the maximum borders these lands have had – or are believed to have had – at various moments in the past, the world would be too small.
Romania is another example of shifting borders, of which Transylvania is perhaps the thorniest. For most of the world, the Transylvania question revolves around Dracula, the Bram Stoker character who was supposed to come from this haunted, not too far away, but still far enough away, place. For Romanians and Hungarians, it revolves around who – which nation – is the rightful ruler over this ancient principality, with such a mix of people populating it.
24. the Transfagarasan Highway: A spectacular road across the Faragas Mountains, with plenty opportunity to get out of the car, too
Romania’s highest mountains – the highest part of the Carpathians – are the Fagaras Mountains, with peaks of over 2500 meters. This is the barrier that separated Transylvania from Wallachia. In due course there have been several roads built across these mountains, but for Ceausescu, Romania’s megalomaniac communist ruler, this was not enough, and he ordered the construction of a road right across the mountains, which became the Trans-Fagarasan Highway.
25. Ploiesti: Oil capital of Romania, Ploiesti has a certain charme for those who appreciate its palatis and modern buildings, as well as its unique oil museum
Ploiesti doesn’t have a tourist information office. It doesn’t need one. There are no tourist attractions.
And yet, no complaints from our side. After all, we abandoned Transylvania because we found it too touristic. And Ploiesti does have its attractions, although perhaps not mainstream. Ploiesti is not only the centre of Romanian oil industry, it is also close to the Prahova Valley wineries. Reason enough, I would say.
26. the Prahova Valley: Romania’s wine route, and its business model, is quite different from the ones in Western Europe, but interesting in its own right, as well as somewhat challenging
Romania is working hard on its tourist appeal, and one of the attractions being developed is the Prahova Valley Wine Route. An initiative not wasted on us, as you may have expected. Internet resources – there is no tourist information in Ploiesti, the nearest larger town, essentially because there are no tourist attractions to speak of, in Ploiesti -, provided some information, either praising the wine route, the Drumul Vinului, in general, or highlighting the individual estates. No detailed map, just a group of villages lined up from Filipesti in the west to Tohani in the east. There is a slight concern, in most wine houses require three days notice, and a minimum group size of 4, or 5, or 8, or even 20. But hey, what can go wrong if you just knock on the door?
27.Iasi: One of Romania’s biggest towns and its surroundings, with an insider’s view
Driving from Ploiesti to Iasi, after a few hours we decided to abandon the highway – which in itself is a big term for the two-to-four lane road that connects Bucharest with Romania’s second, or third, or fourth-largest city, depending on whose statistics you believe, and whether you count the student population. On the highway, bicycles are not uncommon, and despite signs forbidding them, horse-drawn carts are also a frequent sight. Most of the road is two-lane, with a fairly narrow hard shoulder, which is used as extra lane, allowing cars to overtake even when there is oncoming traffic, a perfectly normal concept in Romania. Which does nothing for the oncoming car overtaking the truck that stopped on the hard shoulder to buy grapes, or apples, or anything else that is sold along the road. Or for the car that has to turn left or right and moves at snail’s pace on the hard shoulder, or no pace at all on the main lane. In short, reason enough to abandon the highway.
28. an industrial heritage: By now you know about my obsession with decrepit factories and with ‘palatis’, in reality called ‘blocks’, here, but ‘palati’ is a much nicer word. A view of what is left of Iasi’s industrial complex, and why
A tour of the old industrial complex of the city is an eye opener. I have already commented on the senseless destruction of capital, huge factory halls falling into disrepair, but here this has been taken to a different level, less visible perhaps, because entire factories have disappeared! Apparently, the privatization mechanism after the 1989 revolution was to sell a factory lock, stock and barrel, preferably to a foreigner with money – not necessarily an investor -, so as to draw less attention to the deal. The buyer would be interested in a quick buck only, and focused on selling the machinery as scrap iron, obviously huge business at the time – and still, presumably, because everywhere in Romania we encountered ‘fier vecchi’ signs pointing to yards full of metal waste.
29. into Moldova: An empty country, with little outward indication of progress, although the capital Chisinau is a lively, relaxed place
Being so close, we couldn’t resist hopping across the border into the former Soviet republic of Moldova. The link with Romania comes from one of the Wallachian princes called Bessarab, who, in the 16th Century, established the principality of Bessarabia, between the Dniester and Prut rivers. In the days of Stefan the Great Bessarabia was united with Moldavia (the Romanian province), but the territory has long since been annexed by the Russians, later the Soviet Union. The reunification with Romania proper at the start of WW II, which Romania managed with German help, was short-lived. When war fortunes turned, the Soviets occupied Bessarabia again, in 1943, and they didn’t see any reason to return this territory at the end of the war. And at the break-up of the Soviet Union Bessarabia went on as the independent country of Moldova.
30. the Moldovian tourist attractions: A quick visit along what is supposed to be the creme-de-la-creme of the Moldovan tourist attractions.
There aren’t any. Well, there are no tourist attractions to write home about, but I will attempt a few lights – cannot call them highlights. Not surprisingly, Moldova doesn’t have a tourist information service, and we didn’t have a guide book either, so information was internet-derived, only, Tripadvisor. Don’t believe it.
Moldovan landscape is lovely, rolling hills and the lot, but it is not very spectacular. And it is fairly monotonous – at least the part we saw, and I don’t expect huge variety elsewhere in this, after all pretty small, country. Chisinau, I already discussed, doesn’t have a lot either, even though it is a pleasant enough town. So the real interest needs to come from the monasteries, of which Moldova has plenty.
31. Bicaz & Ceahlau: Romanian natural beauty is well-represented in the Eastern Carpathians, but so is the local tourist industry
Even though we have some four weeks for Romania, we cannot expect to see everything in the entire country, it is simply too big, and there is too much to do. One place we don’t want to miss, however, is the Bicaz Gorge and the Ceahlau Massif, perhaps the most picturesque mountains of Romania.
The Ceahlau Massif is a fairly accessible mountain complex in the Eastern Carpathians, with a couple of well-marked tracks from the base, the village of Izvorul Muntelui, to the top at just over 1900 meters. Old and unfit as we are, we turn around after a couple of hours, without reaching the top, instead opting for the comfort of our simple, but pleasant cabana in Izvorul, with balcony view of the mountains – and home-distilled tuica to clarify the view. Izvorul lives from cabanas.
The next day we drive up to the Bicaz Gorge, indeed a very narrow crack in the mountains, flanked by steep walls, permanently in the shade.
32. to Bucovina: Even after three weeks Romania we still encounter new forms of housing, including those with metal roofs and with car windows, on our way to Suceava, capital of Bucovina
We are on our way back home, but before we set our minds to long distance driving, we have two unique areas to visit still, Bucovina with its painted monasteries, and Maramures with its wooden churches.
In the villages around Iasi we notice quite a few houses that have been built with sheet metal roofs. Apparently, this was in response to lack of affordable building materials in communist times, yet, people have made considerable effort to not just cover the roof, but decorate it, too – at a cost, obviously.
33. the painted monasteries of Bucovina: The brilliantly painted monasteries of Bucovina, in Northern Romania, have been remarkably well-preserved, despite a long history
One of the most striking tourist attractions in Romania are the Bucovina Monasteries, built and painted in the 15th and 16th Century under the patronage of Stefan the Great, the Romanian prince not only revered in Bucovina, but throughout Moldavia province and the rest of Romania, as well as the Republic of Moldova. In fact, we are talking about relatively small orthodox churches, inside a compound wall that forms the fortification around the monastery. The churches are spectacularly decorated with frescos, not only inside, but also – and unusually so – outside. The most quoted reason for the outside paintings is that the churches wanted to educate the illiterate populace, and crowds were far bigger than what fitted inside the church – which leaves the question why this method was not developed elsewhere, of course.
34. Maramures: Perhaps one of the most beautiful regions of Romania, Maramures has lots of attractions, from churches and cemeteries to wooden villages
To get from Bucovina to Maramures takes about half a day. The first few hours, all the way to the Mestacanis Pass, we drive along the main road, the usual two-to-four lane affair. Theoretically to make great progress, but the reality is, as usual, quite different. Main roads go right through villages, where maximum speed is 50 km/hour, and quite reasonably so, given the chicken and the children who randomly run onto the road. Outside the villages, progress is hampered by railway crossings, which do require serious slowing down, by horse drawn carts – ever better visible because of fluorescent reflecting vests, either on the man, or hung onto the back of the cart – and by a whole string of other more or less unexpected dangers and annoyances (there are bicycles, there are huge trucks that worm their way up the winding road to the pass, there is cattle on the motorway, and worst of all, there are other cars). Driving gets rather tiring.
35. the wooden churches of Maramures: Another unique Romanian feature are the steep, wooden churches of Maramures, beautifully decorated inside with frescoes
There are around a hundred wooden churches in Maramures, of which eight are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. We didn’t visit all of them, not only because there is a limit to how many wooden churches one can visit, but also because visiting the churches isn’t as easy as it sounds. For starters, they are closed. Some have a piece of paper with a telephone number, to reach the caretaker, who may, or may not decide to turn up after a call. Others have no indication of where to obtain the key, whatsoever; but asking around often generates enough clues as to on which door to knock, or to which door to call if the yard is being protected by a mean-looking and frantically barking dog. And in most cases, somebody turns up eventually; and waiting is often worthwhile, the reward being a look inside the churches.
36. looking back: After some four weeks traveling through Romania, we come to the conclusion that this is just another European country, and like every other country, unique in its people, in its history and in what is left to see of this history; in the Romanian case, quite attractive.
Romania is something unique, in South Eastern Europe. Not because of its Latin origins, what Romanians will want you to believe sets them apart from other Balkan people. A tenacious claim, at best, really. And not because it represents an old culture that other Balkan countries didn’t have. Every Balkan country has its own, specific background, Bulgaria quite different but equally rich as Romania, for instance. But they are united in 500 years of Ottoman occupation, or domination, which has left its traces. And by 50 years of subsequent communism thereafter, which has caused not only stagnation, but also the breeding of cronyism in the absence of an independent, trustworthy legal system.
But Romania is unique in that every Balkan country aspires, in one way or another, to return to its former greatness, in terms of geographical coverage, yet, for a Greater Albania, a Greater Macedonia, a Greater Serbia, a Greater Bulgaria and a Greater Romania one needs significantly more territory than exists. And only Romania is a country that geographically approaches it maximum historical territorial extent, largely because it mostly doesn’t dispute its territory with the other Balkan countries.