Friday, November 9, 2012

Brasov and Bucharest – Magnificent Castles and the Megalomania of Ceausescu

Old Town Brasov
Anne is a “trainaholic” and thought it would be fun to ride a Romanian train.  After a 70-minute delay on our 1st train here in Romania, she wasn’t so sure anymore.  The train ride was fine (once it arrived!); Romania acquires and refurbishes old trains from Western Europe and our train was the old style with individual compartments holding 6 passengers in each one (like you may have seen in the old movies).

Crumbled ruins of Rasnov Castle
Brasov is an attractive town with an historic Old Town and a small  "pedestrian only" shopping district.  Our main goal was to see the famous castles nearby.  Rasnov Castle is a ruined fortress with an imposing location high on a mountain.  During times of siege, the entire town would huddle in the castle – including all their farm animals that would be hustled into a large courtyard.

Bran Castle's secret passageway
makes Frank "thirsty" for Anne's blood!
Our favorite castle was Bran Castle although it turned out to be much different than we expected.  Bran is also known as "Dracula’s Castle" even though Vlad Tepes, the nasty historical figure who became the inspiration for Dracula, never even resided here.  This romantic castle seemed perfectly suited to writer Bram Stoker’s legendary tale, especially when a secret passageway was discovered that would have allowed the blood-sucking Dracula to come and go as he pleased.  But most of all, the local people saw a money-making opportunity for themselves and opened up souvenir stands selling Dracula T-shirts, strings of garlic, and gobs of made-in-China memorabilia related to the legend of the fictitious vampire.
Speaking of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, here are some interesting facts, or so we were told.  Bram Stoker, author of the infamous Dracula tale, wrote it in the mid 1800’s and never even visited the area for any research.  Also, his popular fictional book is the second most printed book ever, exceeded only by the Bible.

Bran Castle: Queen Mary's homey castle
Beyond the fake Dracula legend (now a fable which is downplayed here in Romania), the castle was the home of Queen Mary, granddaughter of Queen Victoria and a favorite of the Romanian people. The Romanians gave her this castle as an expression of their appreciation.  As we got to know Mary, Anne became enthralled with this enlightened queen who our tour guide told us “became more Romanian than the Romanians.” 

 During communism, it was a crime to say anything good about the royal family;  but now the people are rediscovering the contributions of these benevolent rulers.  The castle actually feels like a cozy family home and reflects Queen Mary’s feminine touch. 

"Interrogation Chair" in the Torture Museum,
replete with sharply pointed wooden spikes

Interestingly, what Frank enjoyed the most was the “Torture Museum” with its gruesome collection of authentic (i.e. actually used!) instruments of the most hideous tortures.

"Riddling" the champagne bottles
to get rid of the dead yeast
When we left Brasov for the capitol city of Romania, Bucharest, we had a driver guide who took us to two stops along the way.  Rhein Cellars was a low-key winery with a small but dedicated staff.  This winery was originally established by the Rhein family of Germany who were encouraged to come here as part of an effort by the Austro-Hungarian empire to establish industries in the Romanian backwater.  Their specialty was German-style sparkling wine (champagne!!) which was a favorite of the Romanian royal family.
After the arrival of communism, The Rhein family returned to Germany.  The communist government actually allowed Germany to “buy back” their citizens (as a moneymaking scheme – of course, no true Romanians were permitted to leave the country).  The communists expanded the winery (and no doubt lowered the quality of the wine) – they also exported all of it to Russia!  Today the winery is owned by a British company who is re-establishing the original methods of the Rhein family.

Love the bubbly!
We had a great tour with the hardworking winemaker who, like most Romanians, appears to do almost everything himself.  Our guide had to translate for us, but no language differences could hide the winemaker’s passion for his craft.  For example, he does all the riddling by hand (champagne bottles have to be turned a 1/8 turn every so many hours during a yeast collecting process called “riddling”).  He showed us how he turned them (man this guy was fast, using both hands, and working 2 rows at one time); he told us he could turn 4,000 bottles in an hour!  Of course, we got to taste the goods at the end of the tour – a marvelous bubbly!

Peles Castle
Our second stop was supposed to be Peles Castle, one of Romania’s most elaborate castles.  Unfortunately, it was closed for restoration, so we had to settle for the “Little Peles.”  Anne was pretty disappointed until she learned that the Little Peles was the home of none other than Queen Mary!  This relatively small castle had Queen Mary’s distinctive homey touch and an impressive array of different architectural and furniture styles. 

Queen Mary's Golden Room
 Art Nouveau was a favorite and many elegant Mucha paintings graced the walls.  Queen Mary’s favorite room is called the “Golden Room” with walls and ceiling covered with a thin layer of gold leaf.

Ceausescu's Parliamentary Palace
Bucharest was our last destination in Romania, and although it lacks the charm of other smaller places, it is rich in history.  We did a day tour to get a sense of this city and the revolutionary events that took place here.  We saw buildings still scarred by the bullets that flew when the Romanian people finally had enough of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was arrested and executed along with his wife, Elena.  Surprisingly, the Ceausescu duo were not at all well-educated.  Our guide told us that Ceausescu could read the speeches others wrote for him, but his wife Elena could not even read or write.  How do people like this get such power, we wondered?

Opulence of the Parliamentary Palace
Nicolae and Elena had 2,000 villas across Romania, and since they liked art, they stole whatever caught their fancy.  (Today their art collection is displayed in the National Art Museum).  But the best example of their ridiculous extravagance is the Parliamentary Palace, the second largest administrative building in the world (right after the Pentagon).  While their people were starving all over Romania, Nicolae and Elena decided to build what they called a “People’s Palace” at a cost of over 3 billion euros.  The inside of the palace is all chandeliers and tons of marble used for both massive columns and graceful staircases.  Knowing the history, in hindsight, it feels really creepy to walk thru the opulence garnered by the greed of the Ceausescu’s.  The only poetic justice is that all of the many palace meeting rooms are now named for revolutionaries, who had a hand in overthrowing this uncaring despot!
Ceausescu’s dream was to address 100,000 people from the Palace’s balcony, but it never happened.  He was deposed before even spending one night here.  Our guide told us the first person to ever address the multitudes from the balcony ended up being Michael Jackson who made a famous flub saying, “Welcome Budapest!”

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