Transylvania: Castles, Fortresses and the Transfagarasan

After 4 days in Bucharest, observing its eclectic mix of architecture and hearing tales of the dangerous eccentricities of its former dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, I was ready to leave Romania’s capital city, see its countryside and explore its non-communist past. I signed up for a 4 day tour titled Transylvania Castles with the Romanian company Rolandia, expecting to see lots of Romanian Orthodox churches, some medieval fortresses and hear too much about Dracula. The tour met all my expectations and provided a few surprises along the way.

Background and History:

Romania today is made up of 3 Romanian speaking regions: Moldavia, Wallacia and Transylvania. The first two regions united in 1859, then in 1867 Romania became independent from the Ottoman Empire. Transylvania was added in 1918; a victory prize to Romania for joining the Allies during WW1, taken from the losing Hungarian empire. Each region has distinct histories influenced by their neighbors: Moldavia is next to Poland and Russia, Transylvania was part of the Hungarian empire for 800 years and still has a large Hungarian speaking minority, and Wallacia was historically part of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire. Bucharest is located in Wallacia.

Dracula and his castles:

Mention the word Transylvania and the word Dracula instantly springs to mind, so let’s get some things out of the way immediately. Dracula, the book by Irish author Braun Stoker, focuses on a vampire who lives in a castle high above a river valley in Transylvania, with a proclivity for drinking human blood. No such vampire existed in fact or in Romanian folklore. It was pure invention, popularized by Hollywood and stores wanting to sell Hallowe’en costumes.

The real Dracula was better known as Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian prince in the 15th century. His name was Vlad Dracula, translated from the Romanian meaning Vlad, son of the dragon. Raised as a hostage by the Ottomans, Vlad returned to Romania in 1456 and came in conflict with Transylvanian Saxons. After suppressing them, the Ottomans ordered him to pay tribute. He refused, causing the Ottomans to send an army against him. To repel the army, Vlad had 2000 Ottoman prisoners impaled, wrenching a pole through the body but avoiding piercing internal organs, ensuring the victim would take at least 48 hours to die. Vlad then burned the crops, killed all the livestock in the vicinity, poisoned the water and installed his 2,000 poles, with bodies hanging on them, beside the road where the Ottoman army could not miss them. The plan worked. The Ottomans, starving and thirsty by the time they got to Transylvania, saw their dead comrades and refused to fight, retreating back to Constantinople. Vlad the Impaler, despite his sadistic tendencies, is revered as a Romanian hero, victorious against the hated Ottomans and defender of the Christian faith.

Bran Castle, also known as Dracula’s castle, was given its moniker in the 1980’s by the Romanian government aiming to promote tourism to the region. Although it bears some resemblance to Dracula’s castle described in Stoker’s novel, rising steeply above the town of Bran, near Braslov, it was never owned by Dracula’s inspiration, Vlad the Impaler. He may have visited it, slept in it a few nights or been imprisoned there, but most of this is conjecture. Nonetheless, it is the top tourist attraction in Transylvania.

The Castle is accessed through a fairground of ice-cream and cotton candy vendors, booths selling t-shirts emblazoned with Dracula and other souvenirs stands ,everything to give it the air of a giant tourist trap, which it is. Despite trying to time our visit to avoid the worst of the crowds, the parking lot was filled with buses taking mostly Americans on 2 day excursions from the Danube river trips and Romanian school kids.

Bran Castle dates from 1438, built by Transylvanian Saxons to defend against the Ottomans and to guard the border between Transylvania and Wallachia. Its usefulness as a fortress was limited and it fell into disrepair. In the 1920’s it was given to Queen Marie (wife of the second king); it was most recently used by her daughter Ileana until the Communists took it over in 1948. The latter became a nun, which gives you an indication about the interior decor.

To say it was jam-packed with visitors is an understatement. We crawled along at a snail’s pace in a giant pack up the entry stairs, through a room giving the history of the castle, then waited in another line to gingerly make our way up a dark,  narrow, uneven stone staircase, the most frightening thing in the castle given the distinct possibility of someone tripping on the stairs, falling and breaking their neck.. In the main living quarters, the walls were white plaster, the ceilings covered in dark wooden beams and collections of armor, weapons, furniture and period costumes were on display. How exciting!

Ironically, the remnants of a real castle constructed by Vlad the Impaler exists. Poenari stands high on a cliff, overlooking the river valley below. Originally built in the 13th century, Vlad made it one of his principal residences. It can normally be visited by those foolhardy enough to climb the 1,000 steps up, but it was closed for renovations when I was there, sparing me making excuses for not climbing up:

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Vlad the Impaler’s Castle

Peles Castle:

Nestled in the Carpathian Mountains close to Sinaia, Romania’s first modern king, Carol 1, built his summer residence, Peles Castle. As he was originally German, the castle is new-German Renaissance in style, half-timbers on the exterior and ornately decorated rooms panelled in carved wood inside. In the music room, stain glass windows depict scenes from fairy tales. There’s a complete theatre with room for an orchestra, a miniature hall of mirrors, 170 rooms and countless chandeliers made with Murano glass. During the communist period, the castle was expropriated by the state and used as, first a museum to show the decadence of the wealthy, then as a writers’ retreat for politically acceptable authors. Following the fall of Communism, the property reverted back to Carol 1’s family.

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Peles Castle

The German Settlements:

In the mid-12th century, the Hungarian king reigning over Transylvania invited German speakers to settle the area, both to defend against foreign aggressors (the Tartars) and to establish trading centres. Known as the German Saxons, the immigrants established cities still existing today: Sibiu, Brasov and Sighisoara, to name a few. These medieval cities have large, central squares surrounded by cobblestone roads, walls and gates, and bright, rainbow coloured houses and shops, with rich ornamentation and a refreshing absence of ugly social realism/communist style buildings that blot Bucharest.

The cities were spared the plight of many German cities that were destroyed during WW1 and WW2, making Transylvania a more intact representation of 16-18th century German architecture than Germany. Not so the ethnic Germans. Many left during and after the world wars and Ceausescu allowed thousands more to emigrate to West Germany in return for payment from that country. The death knoll was the fall of communism in 1989, when an estimated half million ethnic Germans left.

Today, their legacy remains in the architecture of the Transylvanian towns and in the Evangelical churches. No relation to the American evangelical movement, the Evangelical churches were fortified to provide refuge in case of attack. Over 200 stand today, most open to tourists but lacking congregations as there are fewer than 15,000 Germans remaining in Romania.

Romanian Orthodox Churches:

Despite their kings being Catholic and the communists, atheists, the Romanian Orthodox Church is thriving and new and old churches dot the country, including those at Sinaia, Alba lulia and Curtea de Arges, but also many new ones:

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Unlike in Bulgaria, photography is permitted inside. After 3 very lovely churches, I begged off visiting any more and walked in the gardens instead.

Fortresses:

Not to be confused with palaces, which serve only as residences with no defensive purpose, Romania has its fair share of fortresses, generally reachable only by climbing to the top of high hills. 

Râşnov Fortress was constructed by Teutonic Knights in the 12th century. Built both for defensive purposes and as a place of refuge, it contains 30 mostly reconstructed houses and shops inside the walls:

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The walls at Rasnov Fortress

Hunedoara/Corvin fortress was constructed beginning in 1440, one of the few fortresses which also had an impressive palace inside:

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Corvin Castle

There were other castles and fortress, but listing them all would take a while. Needless to say, if you like medieval castles, Romania will be a delight as it is full of them.

Prince Charles, Gypsies and a Road:

Just ss Kosovo has a love affair with Bill Clinton, Romania is enamoured with Prince Charles. This love affair is not proclaimed on gigantic billboards, but is most evident in the tiny village of Viscri, where the Prince owns a holiday house where he plays farmer (shades of Marie Antoinette?). We didn’t go there, but dined at another house in town. Our hostess was a local, our “restaurant” a table in a room off her courtyard filled with hay and chickens running around. Her pigs were in the back, the only sink was outside and the entire scene was rustic. Despite the primitive surroundings, she and her husband served us a wonderful meal. The bread was purchased from another local woman, the soup was made from homegrown vegetables, she had slaughtered the chicken in the main course earlier that day and baked the chocolate and walnut cake served for dessert. Homemade rakija was served, along with elderflower syrup and soda.

After lunch we indulged in as close as I wanted to get to a rural experience, a ride in a horse drawn cart. All through Romania, most farms are small and the farmers use carts rather than expensive, energy inefficient tractors and other motor powered contraptions. We had seen the carts all over the place and jumped at the opportunity to take a 30 minute ride around Viscri in one, but there was no sighting of Prince Charles or even a billboard with his picture.

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Throughout the Balkans, I kept hearing about the gypsies (no one called them Roma): in the former Yugoslav countries, we were repeatedly warned about the nimble fingers of the Roma pickpockets. In Bulgaria, our guide derisively referred to them as parasites and thieves, living off the wealth of hard working citizens while refusing to contribute or integrate into Bulgarian society. The attitude in Romania was softer; people spoke of the need to correct past discrimination and of affirmative action programs designed to attract gypsies to universities and provide them with government jobs.

We passed through city after city where gypsies and non-Gypsies lived beside each other, separate schools, separaate groceries, separate recreation centers, but all worshipped in the same church. The biggest surprise for me was the presence of humungous gypsy houses, ornately decorated in a style that immediately marked them as gypsy and often unfinished. Our guide explained that to the gypsies, size was the most important aspect of a house. They would rather have 20 unfinished rooms than 4 finished rooms. And so, all across Transylvania, were gigantic, shells of houses built by the gypsies.

I cannot resist ending with another Ceausescu folly, the Transfagarasan. Built under his orders, it is a 147 kilometer road linking the region of Transylvania with Wallachia having absolutely no useful purpose except as a monument to Communist engineering prowess. Running over and through the Carpathian Mountains, it serves no industry, is a few hours longer than the more direct route, is prohibited to trucks and only opens between July and September, weather permitting. While not oblivious to the lives lost in constructing the road or the billions spent on it, the road is fun to drive and as goofy as can be. Driving it on the second day of the season, hundreds or thousands of Romanians also thought it worthy of a spin. People were picnicking, stopping for photos, even jumping into the freezing glacier-fed lakes beside it. We joined the revelry and duly admired the road:

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The Transfagarasan Road

Next: Back to France

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