Arles: About Van Gogh

It is September and I am back on the road after spending a month in Canada, but I would be remiss if I failed to pay homage to the final city I visited in France, Arles, during the last week in July.

Provence, at last:

July was meant to be my month exploring different cities and villages in the French region of Provence, but for reasons that escape me, I ended up in regions outside of Provence more often than not. Determined to at least end in the right region, I picked Arles as my final stop.

Arles attracts tourists for 3 main reasons. First, it is a typical Provençal city, with an historic centre filled with stone houses sporting colourful flower pots, narrow winding alleyways, pretty squares where restaurants serve traditional Provençal cuisine heavy on fresh vegetables and meats infused with local herbs, museums, art galleries galore, the requisite pedestrian walkway through the old city center and oodles of French charm, all next to a meandering river, whose bridges had been medieval and quaint until the Allies bombed them during WW2. The surrounding countryside is also typical Provence; vineyards and sunflowers, stone farm houses and churches in the center of small towns built atop hills, where cobblestone streets are the norm, every restaurant has a large patio and bakeries adorn every block.

The Monuments:

The second reason to visit Arles is the monuments, six remnants from the Roman era. Standing in the centre is the Ampitheatre, the 20th largest such structure according to a plaque inside the entrance. Modelled after the much larger Colosseum in Rome, the Arles Ampitheatre could hold 20,000 spectators to watch gladiators fight and chariots racing. It has been revamped and renovated to hold bull races (bull fighting is no longer permitted) and concerts.

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Inside the Arles Ampitheatre

About 2/3rds of the structure is original and after paying the entrance fee, I walked around it and up its tower to admire the views, before moving on to the next monument, the Theatre, a few hundred feet away.

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Part of the Arles Theatre

Nice enough, but what intrigued me most was how the ancient monuments had been integrated into the medieval city. Find a parking spot, walk under an arch in the Roman walls, walk up a winding street barely wide enough for a car and run smack dab into an Ampitheatre or the remains of the Forum across from a cluster of restaurants or next to a shop.

From the Theatre, I made my way to the Crypts, located in a building beside the Hotel de Ville or city hall. Alas, my entrance ticket was only good for 2 monuments, a point not made by the original ticket seller and I was too cheap to start buying individual tickets to the remaining monuments, I walked to the Baths of Constantine and took photos through the fence, but gave the Forum and the Ramparts a miss.

Vincent Van Gogh:

The third reason to visit Arles is the artist, Vincent Van Gogh. I had become enthralled with his life and art at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and wanted to learn more about him. Arles is one of the best places to do it.

Some background here about Van Gogh. He was born to a minister’s son in The Netherlands in 1853. He tried to follow in his father’s footsteps but it didn’t work out, so he turned his attention to art. Dogged by ill health and financially supported by his art dealer brother, he moved to Paris at the age of 33 where he met the artistes challenging traditional notions of art. There, he developed his impressionist style of painting, dominated by thin brushstrokes and faithful descriptions of light and movement. Finding the Paris climate unhealthy, Van Gogh moved to Arles in February, 1888 and stayed for over a year. In Arles he cut off his ear off in a fit of rage after arguing with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. A year later, in 1890, Van Gogh discharged himself from a psychiatric hospital in nearby Saint Remy and committed suicide.

Van Gogh’s time in Arles was prolific. He completed 200 paintings, tons of sketches and penned numerous letters, many of which are on display in Amsterdam. In Arles, the tourist board offers a nightly Van Gogh tour, which I joined with 20 others. Our guide gave us a brief biography, then started walking us to different sights that Van Gogh had lived in, been inspired by or painted. Where Van Gogh had painted a subject, a reproduction and explanation of the picture was displayed. Thus, at the public park, we saw Entrance to the Public Park in Arles.

The Van Gogh cafe is the Cafe Terrace at Night, obviously having undergone a name change. and overpriced for the food according to the guide.

By the Ampitheatre, near the ramparts, we could look into the distance and see the countryside, inspiration for The Oliveraie and Sunflowers. We walked to the river, the watery subject of Starry Night over the Rhone before finishing the tour at the former hospital where Van Gogh stayed recuperating from his ear slashing incident. Here, he painted the The Hospital in Arles.

Van Gogh tried to return to his former lodgings (the yelllow house, now destroyed) following his hospital stay, but the townsfolk, fearful of another of his psychotic episodes, signed a petition which compelled the police to shut down his house. He stayed with his doctor for a few months before leaving for the asylum in Saint Remy.

Immersive Art and Van Gogh

At the Carrieres de Lumieres in Les Baux-de-Provence, just a 30 minute drive from Arles, Van Gogh’s paintings are the star of an immersive art show, deigned to give the audience an holistic experience – seeing, hearing, touching – the art. In an old stone quarry with 40 foot high walls and much appreciated natural air conditioning in the +40 degree heatwave hovering over southern France, I sat down on a block of rocks and watched as giant reproductions of Van Gogh’s greatest works were projected onto the walls, the floors and the ceilings. Music accompanied the show, people walked around and touched the walls, children danced with the flowers and the stars in Starry Night twinkled above.

For an hour, I was completely bedazzled by the changing artwork and the haunting music, although the song Please don’t let me be Misunderstood was a bit too literal for my liking.

It was a good end to my month attempting to stay in Provence, basking in Van Gogh’s interpretations of the scenery, the farms and the flowers I had been enjoying first hand.

Next stop: Copenhagen

Carcassonne: The Medieval City

Continuing my futile quest to remain in Provence during July, I again found myself leaving Provence for the region of Occitanie, the southern most area of France, destination Carcassonne, a fixture on everybody’s prettiest towns in France list. Less than 4 hours and more than 40 Euros in tolls from Lyon, I arrived there in the midst of France’s second heat wave of the summer. Thankfully, both my car and hotel had air conditioning.

Geography:

Carcassonne is located in the plains beside the river Aude, where the 16th century Canal du Midi links the Mediterranean with the Atlantic. Two hour boat rides on the canal by far more modern vessels are offered starting at 10 Euros. Occitanie has its own language (Occitan), a Romance language closely related to Catalan, and a history replete with attempts by Spain to conquer it, and vice versa. Barcelona is only 300 kilometers away.

It is also the region where grapes have grown forever, or at least since the 5th century BC by the Greeks. Sparkling wine was developed here 150 years before Don Perignon figured it out and it is home to Cassoulet, a dish made with white haricot beans, pork fat and duck in a slow cooker called a cassole. I had one for dinner in Carcassonne; delicious yes, but no one could explain to me how a dish heavy with white beans, which were first brought to Europe in the 15th century from America, became synonymous with France.

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Cassoulet

History:

Carcassonne is really two cities, the “medieval” city perched on the hill and the modern city (mostly 18th century) below, beside the canal. The medieval city has been around since Neolithic times. The Romans built a fortress on the hill; their walls are still visible. It was captured by the Visigoths in the 5th century, the same Visigoths who also sacked Rome in 410AD.

In the 10th century, Carcassonne became a favourite stopping point for crusaders off to the Holy Land. Also during this period, the count of Trenceval built the chateau that still stands and ruled the area for a while. Early heretics of the Catholic Church, the Cathars, were headquartered in Carcassonne, causing it to become the center of the French Inquisition in the 13th century. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, various armies tried to penetrate the city, but failed due to its constantly updated fortifications.

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Carcassonne’s double walls

Finally, Napoleon decommissioned it as a military base and it fell into disrepair, its stones used for buildings in the new Carcassonne below. It was even ordered to be demolished in 1849. An uproar ensued and Eugene Viollet-le-duc, an architect who also installed the recently collapsed spire on Norte Dame in Paris, took up the fight to save the city and renovate it.

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Medieval Cacassonne from a nearby bridge

The Medieval City:

In 1853, restoration began. Two rows of walls; the interior Roman ones and the exterior medieval ones ring the city, along with 52 towers. Inside, a labyrinth of cobblestone roads and meandering alleyways are flanked by “15th century” houses and shops, their telltale second floors overhanging the streets in order to reduce the tax burden calculated on the ground floor space. A now clean and dry open sewer runs down the street centers, previously used to steer refuse and other undesirable stuff away from the city.

The Trencevals built the cities largest house- the Chateau Comtal – currently a museum with guided tours. A large, decommissioned  church, the Basilica of Saint Nazarius and Celsus ,is believed to have been begun in the 6th century, renovated by the Carolingians, blessed with Cathedral status in the 11th century and took its Gothic shape in the 13th century. It, too, was renovated by Mr. Violet-le-duc.

His restoration is not without controversy. Slate tiles dominate the roofs, even though slate is not quarried anywhere in the vicinity. Many of the towers are pointed, another feature not found in medieval architecture. The city does not advertise itself as an authentic reproduction, but as a re-imagined medieval city with a few idiocyncracies. It’s a fair enough description, with the 15th century houses now home mostly to souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels. Fifty residents still inhabit the old town, but with running water, proper sewage and electricity. As an UNESCO heritage site, it has no (visible to me) air conditioning and it is closed to traffic after 9:00AM.

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Re-imagined entrance with pointed towers

It is also the second most visited monument outside of Paris in France, with Mont. St. Michel in first place. Tons of visitors, mostly French, braved the 40+ degree weather to wander the city during the 3 days I spent there, their kids running around in full length medieval dresses brandishing plastic swords and shields, and everyone drinking from the fountains and wells. Ice-cream was the bestseller.

My walking tour offered by the Tourism Centre was underwhelming, with the guide showing up 20 minutes late, then racing through the old town to ensure she still finished at the specified hour. She spent  an inordinate amount of time explaining Cathar religious philosophy and how it differed from that of the Catholic Church. I won’t bore you with the details, a courtesy I wish the guide had also extended. Suffice to say, the Cathars were the main targets of the French Inquisition and were effectively extinguished through conversion, torture and execution. Their lasting legacy is, oddly, their repression by military means, which eventually led to the unification of the Carcassonne region with France rather than Spain.

Final Thoughts:

Carcassonne is striking, from the first view of the ramparts in the distance, to its interior buildings, roads and squares. Yes, it evokes the sense that one is wandering through a medieval city, although the hoards of tourists did much to dampen my enthusiasm for it and I was a tad disappointed to learn much of the renovations dated from the 19th century. But on my final day, I rose at 6:00AM and went into the old city, without the crowds and just meandered about for an hour, trying to take myself back 500 years. Aside from the occasional delivery truck driver, it mostly worked and made it worth the visit.

Auvergne-Rhone-Alps: Valence, Annecy and Lyon

It is probably obvious that if one wants to spend a month tootling around Provence, one should double check to ensure the cities where non-refundable hotels have been booked are in Provence. It is likely equally obvious, from the title or if you have read this far, to realize I failed miserably in this task. It wasn’t until I passed a road sign declaring Auvergne-Rhone-Alps before I realized I was no longer in Provence, although the foothills of the Alps, the chalets and the fondue restaurants should all have provided a clue. A quick check on the map of France confirmed that none of my next 3 cities were in Provence, but there was no going back unless I wanted to lose those non-refundable charges.

In any event, the cities I had chosen each had their own attractions. Valence simply to break up the drive between Avignon and Annecy; Annecy as a highly recommended pretty Alpine city and Lyon, the second largest city in France (Marseille disputes this but no one had a definitive answer) and self-described culinary capital of the world.

Valence:

Everyone is entitled to their mistakes, and Valence was mine. It’s a pretty city with an historic old town, but when I googled Things to do in Valence, not a lot came up that didn’t involve a day trip to Lyon, Avignon or Annecy, cities already on my agenda. No walking tours were on offer and I had had my fill of historical museums. So I did what I always do when uncertain as to the sights. I looked up TripAdvisor, programmed its Top 10 things to do in Valence into my GoogleMaps walking application and started at # 1. It is a bandstand made famous in a French program I never heard of and was surrounded by fencing preparing for an evening rock concert. # 2 was Park Jouvet, conveniently located next to the bandstand. It was a nice park and I was enjoying the shade of a tree near a park bench until the band in attraction #1 started rehearsing, completely ruining the serenity of the park.

#3 was the Maison des Tetes, a 16th century house with Tetes or “head” carvings, hence the name and #4 was the Cathedral, closed for lunch:

The Things to do List wasn’t proving particularly engrossing. I gave up and walked down the two pedestrian streets, reminding me I had some shopping to do (replace Apple headphones I had lost) and laundry. Valence was as good a place as any to get those things done, so I did.

Annecy:

Nestled in the Alps around a lake (Lake Annecy, what else?) lies the city of Annecy. It calls itself the Venice of the Alps, thanks to canals that run from the lake through the old city. Venice has little to fear as competition; Annecy has only two canals, they are only a few hundred meters each and neither gondolas nor gondoliers are present. What Annecy’s canals have are pretty as punch bridges, cobblestone paths on either side of the canals for walking and restaurant patios and the Palace d’Ille, formerly a prison, now a museum.

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Annecy Palace d’ Ille

Three days a week, local farmers and merchants set up a market on the cobblestones, slowing pedestrian traffic to a shuffle. Food of every sort is available, including my go-to lunch, roasted chicken, and my newest favourite, white peaches so juicy and sweet you’d think sugar was added.

Twice a year, Annecy gets inundated with tourists flocking to its annual fireworks festival – the biggest in France- and its Animation Film Festival. Neither were on when I was there, so Annecy was just very crowded with mostly French tourists coming for their week at the lake vacation.

On a hill overlooking the old town is Chateau d’Annecy, a 12th century fortress and chateau used by the counts of Geneva for protection and a residence. The buildings are a museum, but I entered the main one to be greeted by an exhibition on the woodcarving techniques used for making flat bottom boats that plied Lake Annecy, complete with a life size replica. As shipbuilding is not something I find fascinating, I quickly exited and went to the real attraction of the Chateau, its panoramic view of the city and lake.

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Annecy view from the Chateau

The lake itself is emerald green. Measuring about 42 kilometers in circumference, it is home to Annecy at one end and thousands of holiday homes perched in the foothills around the lake. A bike path circles the lake, but the gentleman in the bike rental store warned me to go only halfway to avoid the hills at the other end. I took his advice and had a lovely 15 kilometer bike ride (each way), passing through farms where the tingling sound of cowbells announced the presence of cows, cottages, tents and caravan parks all filled with people enjoying the beach and every manner of water sport, from paddle boats to canoes to water-skiing.

I spent an idyllic 3 days in Annecy, going for bike rides each day, walking along the lake and dining in the restaurants along the canal.

Car versus Public Transit

I was debating whether having a car was preferable to using public transit. For a single person, it was much more expensive after car rental, gas and tolls, but it allowed me more freedom to see the countryside and visit small villages which would have been near impossible to reach by public transit.

It wasn’t all positive. As I needed hotels with parking, I wasn’t able to stay in or near the old, car free, city centres, my usual preference. I had made peace with GoogleMaps, so getting lost was not a problem and the French are relatively courteous drivers (in comparison to, eg, the Albanians). I was even starting to appreciate the ubiquitous roundabouts.

I was going back and forth on this issue as I drove from Annecy to Lyon. To save money and to enjoy the countryside, I turned on the “Avoid Tolls” feature in GoogleMaps and was rewarded with picturesque villages, fields of grapes and sunflowers and an absence of trucks. At one point, I exited a tiny village and started up a high mountain on a single lane road with a thick fence made of stone to protect the cars from the precipitous cliffs. At the top. I passed through a rock tunnel and emerged into the sunlight to be greeted by the most fabulous view, the  lake of St. Germaine la Chambotte far below in the valley. As I wasn’t able to stop at the top of the mountain, the photo was taken in a turn out about 1/3 the way down.

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St. Germaine la Chambotte

After this view, renting a car won hands down!

Lyon:

Lyon, like many other cities, is shaped by its geography. Its highest hill, the Fourvière, was first inhabited as a colony during the Roman period. Below the hill is the oldest part of the city, the areas of St. John and St. George, which boast more Renaissance buildings than any other city except Venice. Next is the River Saone and between the island separating the Saone from the Rhone River is the typical neo-classical French city with wide boulevards, Haussmann style buildings, parks and squares and a main pedestrian street called Rue de la Republic. On the other side of the Rhone is the new city, with 20th century high rises and parking lots and a large immigrant community.

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Lyon Panoramic with rivers visible if you look closely

Lyon’s early fortune as the capital of Gaul floundered with the collapse of the Roman Empire. Always a trading hub as a result of its rivers and closeness to both Italy and Switzerland, it regained its earlier prominence in the Middle Ages as the center of silk weaving. Francois Jacquard, of the Jacquard weave, used punch cards on his looms to replicate tapestry patterns, the precursor to the punch cards used by computers in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The silk industry disappeared from Lyon with the import of cheap Chinese silk, but a few shops still demonstrate the looms and resulting silks.

Also during this time, the aqueducts which had supplied Roman Lyon dried up. People living in the town needed easy access to the rivers, made difficult because the houses were built right next to each other, with no roads leading to or from the rivers. To solve this problem, over 600 tunnels or passageways were built under, between or through buildings, providing direct paths to the waterways. These passageways, or traboules as they are called, still exist today and many are open to the public.

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One of Lyon’s many traboules

During WW2, the traboules proved useful to both the French resistance and fleeing refugees, as the locals knew of their location but the Nazis did not. This also gave rise to one of Lyon’s darkest chapters, the tyranny of Klaus Barber, the Butcher of Lyon, who as head of the Gestapo in Lyons was responsible for clearing the passages, torturing and murdering thousands of French citizens along the way. Despite this, the US counter-intelligence agency recruited him and later assisted in relocating him to Bolivia. He was finally extradited back to France in 1984 to stand trial for crimes against humanity. His trial was held in the Appeals Court in Lyon, where he was convicted. He died in custody in 1991.

Lyon boasts it has 21 Michelin starred restaurants, but obtaining a dinner reservation for one on short notice proved impossible, so I did the next best thing. I signed up for a gourmet food tour, accompanied by 8 Americans and our guide, Olivier, a native Lyonnais. We started at a cheese store, where we sampled numerous cheeses including goat and sheep cheeses and those made from unpasteurized milk. Our next stop was at a Lyon institution, the Bouchon. Bouchons originally began in the 16th century as cheap eating houses for the silk workers. The wealthy Lyonnaise used the best parts of animals, thus typical Bouchon fare is heavy on chicharrons (pork rinds), offal and intestines, all considered waste by the upper crust. We sampled all three along with copious amounts of local red wine. The third and fourth stop featured similar foods, with the addition of beans and my favourite, saucisson brioche, a sausage cooked in a brioche pastry. We finished with ice cream and a very sweet praline cake, a fitting end to a 4 hour gourmet journey.

Next: More problems staying in Provence

Avignon: Popes, Lavender and Wine

After months of bus and train trips, group tours and trotting, suitcase in tow, from hotel to hotel, I was looking forward to 10 days in an Airbnb in Avignon, France, about 100 kilometers north of Marseille. I picked up my rental car, after enduring an hour long line at the Avis/Budget hut at the train station, and drove to my apartment. It was still hot in Provence – between 35 and 39 every day – but I had air conditioning and a pool so everything was tolerable.

Of Popes:

Avignon served as the papal seat between 1309 and 1376 when 7 popes, all French, decided Rome wasn’t good enough for them and moved the papacy to Avignon, in the south of France. Granted, it was a bit more complicated than that, but the result was the same. Avignon became the hotbed of Roman Catholicism and built a palace fit for a pope, the Palais des Popes. Although begun in 1252, it was renovated and added to until 1364.

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The Palace des Popes

Today, it stands as the largest Gothic structure in the world. I went in, with hundreds of others, beginning in the courtyard which was filled with ugly movable bleachers. A children’s assembly was taking place and us mere tourists were sheperded under the bleachers through makeshift aisle ways into the palace proper. We were outfitted with IPads, which, when pointed at the appropriate apparatus in each room, played a brief video about what the room looked like back in the 14th century. So in, for example, the mammoth dining hall, the video demonstrated foods and cooking techniques popular 600 years ago. The IPad was a nice touch, providing additional information and visual aids, but it also masked the fact that, other than the outstanding architecture, the palace was mostly bare, except for the tour groups. We walked from empty room to room – this was the chapel, that was the library- with little more than the size, the ceiling beams and the fireplaces distinguishing one from another.

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An inner courtyard (without bleachers)

An hour later, I exited the palace and walked, literally, around the old city’s ramparts. Begun as far back as in Roman times, they were doubled and heightened to 8 meters to protect the popes. Some are original, others reconstructed, but they frame the old city, circling it for 4.3 kilometres with 7 gates offering entrance. Next to it, on the Rhone, dozens of riverboats beginning their Rhone river cruise were ferrying their passengers into the city.

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A small portion of Avignon’s walls

Not only did the walls protect the Popes from all sorts of invaders, they currently act as a natural (or government issued) barrier to modern excesses like high rises and fast food restaurants. Inside the walls, a medieval feeling may still be invoked. Many of the roads were cobblestone, numerous palaces built to house the cardinals still line the streets and churches galore stand to be admired.

Regrettably, my timing was not conducive to aimless wandering down the pretty streets. It was Avignon Festival time, with the main streets blocked to traffic and occupied instead by booksellers and artists and pop-up restaurants. The Festival is also a French fringe extravaganza, so erstwhile artists handed out fliers to their plays and pasted thousands of them on every available inch of wall, fence or post, thereby completely ruining most photo opportunities. Not unexpectedly, the Festival drew massive numbers of people to the old city, in addition to the regular tourists and school kids. It was crowded and in the +35 degree heat, not too pleasant for meandering.

Of Lavenders:

One of Provence’s attractions is the annual blossoming of lavenders, an event I was hoping to enjoy. To date, roses in Bulgaria and tulips in Holland had bloomed unseasonably early so I had missed the best of both. Lavenders are considered to be at their prime between June and August in Provence, giving me a wide window of opportunity.

I duly checked Google for the location of the best fields – they are not everywhere – and set off in my rental car for Luberon, one of the premier places for lavenders. On my way, I passed a few fields and took some photos; a preview for what was coming I hoped. But when GoogleMaps led me to the Luberon park, it failed to take into account a barrier blocking cars from entering the park and from me proceeding to the Luberon fields. I contented myself with returning to the fields I had already passed near the town of Bonnieux – they were marvellous – before carrying on to Gordes, one of the 15 or 20 prettiest towns in France according to Fodors and The Guardian. Yes it is pretty, but I was mostly interested in its Lavender Museum.

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Bonnieux

I entered the museum to find a line-up to buy tickets, which I patiently stood in for 10 minutes before paying and being directed to the demonstration outside. A young man standing next to a still waited for a large enough group before giving a 10 minute explanation how lavender essence is obtained, in both English and French. It was remarkedly similar to how rose oil, which I had learned about in Bulgaria, is obtained: put kilos of the flower into a pot, add steaming hot water, allow to seep, drain the liquid and separate the oil from the water.

The brief explanation identified the difference between lavendin and lavender. The former is the more common plant, grows at low altitudes and doesn’t have the advertised health benefits of real lavender – curing insomnia, assisting indigestion, reducing blood pressure, eliminating hot flashes, etc. – it is used exclusively in the perfume industry. With the explanation done, we were directed to return to the ticket seller to obtain our audio phones for the museum visit. Another wait ensued before the single person at the ticket area gave me some headphones and I entered the museum.

Unless you have an interest in various stills, which I don’t, the museum is a bit of a bust. It consisted of a room containing between 40-50 different kinds of stills, with an explanation as to the history and special features of each. I walked through it in 30 seconds, into a giant shop selling everything lavender-related. The one thing missing was lavender plants. For those, I was told I would need to go back towards Bonnieux to see the plants I had already admired or, if I wanted to see the real lavender plants,  to drive an hour into the hills near Sault.

So I drove to Sault, along a winding, mountainous road, past grape vines and stone houses until I arrived in the Sault Valley and was greeted with a view of patchwork fields, some green and others the telltale purple of lavender. I stopped, took photos, walked along the side of the road and enjoyed the majestic beauty of the lavenders.

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Châteauneuf-du-Pape:

The popes left another enduring legacy besides the palace in Avignon. About 12 kilometers from Avignon lies Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a region and a town famous for its wines; I’ve been drinking them for years. Begun as a summer residence for the popes, the popes also planted the first vineyards in the region. Today, the Provence and Cotes Du Rhone areas produce some of Frances most beloved wines.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is another hopelessly pretty French town, with beige stone houses roofed with sienna coloured clay tiles, crowned by the ruins of the castle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Every second building was a wine tasting cellar or store. I stopped at the Brotte Wine Museum, only to find it closed between noon and 2:00PM for lunch. This is France after all. Since I was driving, I resisted the urge to indulge in a wine tasting and contented myself with a salad at one of the many patios in the town.

Next: Driving around France

 

 

Surviving Ryanair and Marseille

Surviving Ryanair:

Having decided to spend July in Provence, France, the first challenge was how to get there from Bucharest, Romania. A few search engines later, the best answer was a non-stop flight from Bucharest to Marseille, but on Ryanair, a low cost carrier notorious for its penny pinching, At one time it had proposed charging for going to the bathroom, but had backtracked on this particular idea amidst widespread condemnation.

I mentioned my possible Ryanair flight to my son, who had flown it extensively on his European jaunt. His initial reaction was hesitant:

“ You know there is no business class on Ryanair?” he prodded.

“Yes, but I’m not such a princess that I need business class for a 2 1/2 hour flight. Besides, it’s intra-Europe so all business class is crap. Even Lufthansa uses regular seats and just blocks off the middle one.”

“Okay, but they will nickel and dime you and you know how much you hate that. Best to buy every upgrade possible so there will be no surprises. And beware, they try and sell you lottery tickets.”

I took my son’s advice to heart and bought priority boarding, extra legroom in seat 1A, a checked bag to avoid issues about whether mine was too big and the whole one-way flight totaled  $175, far less than a flight from Toronto to Winnipeg. How bad could it be?

If you don’t like rants, it is probably best to skip the next part, but here goes:

First issue, the check-in counter in Bucharest doesn’t open until a miserly 2 hours before the flight. My ride had dropped me at the airport at 5:30PM and the flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until 9:50 PM, meaning I had 2 1/2 hours to hang around the check-in counters at Bucharest airport. It was not the most thrilling of times, but I wasn’t mugged, there were bathrooms and the Brioche Doree shop sold both tuna sandwiches and small bottles of wine. Needless to say, there was no lounge access.

Check-in finally came, security was quick with nothing confiscated, followed by too many stores selling perfume and liquor, although why anyone would buy alcohol in Romania when they are heading to France is beyond me.  I arrived at the empty gate and waited, and waited, and waited….

The area filled up, the 9:50 departure time came and went and still, nothing. I checked the “FlightTracker” app, which told me the flight was now scheduled to leave a 10:25. No word from Ryanair. Then FlightTracker said 10:50. Still silence from Ryanair. Finally, at 11:00 PM, a plane arrived at the gate, two Ryanair employees showed up and we slowly began the boarding process, Our plane took off at 11:30, meaning I would arrive at 1:00AM Marseille time, definitely not my preferred time of arrival. I checked Google, which told me a cab to my hotel would cost 60 Euros (about $100), but I decided it had been a long day and I felt in need of a splurge.

The flight itself was full, but fairly pleasant, meaning no turbulence. After the obligatory safety demonstration and take-off, the flight crew only used French on the PA system, so when they came around with a cart and I asked for a bottle of white wine, the attendant apologized and said they were doing snacks first but he would be right back with drinks. True to his word, he was back with the bottle of wine within 10 minutes and it cost only 6 Euros, about $9. For reasons I cannot explain, he took a liking to me, and offered me wine, snacks and English translations of the only in French PA announcements every few minutes, completely the opposite of what I was expecting.  I think they tried to sell lottery tickets, but I had completely tuned them out as I didn’t want to make the effort to understand the French sales pitch. The flight passed quickly, uneventful and we landed in Marseille.

Being in seat 1A, I was first at customs/immigration and the officer could not get me through fast enough. He glanced at my passport, then at me and waived me through in about 10 seconds. No stamp, no swiping my passport through a machine, just complete indifference or very tired. So much for my Schengen concerns. Unfortunately, another Ryanair flight had landed just before us, so a 20 minute wait for my bag ensued, during which I felt fully the heatwave which had been engulfing the south of France for the last week. It was 1:20 AM and still 37 degrees Celsius and the baggage area in Marseilles was not air-conditioned.

My bag eventually showed up and I made my way to the taxi area, only to find no taxis there. I used the Uber app. on my phone, just to be told no cars were available. Despondent, I looked around and saw a line of people mounting a bus, so I went, got on, paid the 8 euro fare, sat down and asked the lady in front of me where we were going. I probably should have checked this out before committing to the bus, but it was now 2:30 AM Bucharest time and I was not rational. But all was good; the bus was going to the main bus/train station in Marseille, it was air conditioned and I would figure out my next move once I got to the station.

This should be the end, but sadly, it wasn’t. We arrived at a blackened station, closed until 4:30AM, so my option of sleeping in the station evaporated. It was, according to Google Maps just a 13 minute walk to my hotel but Marseille is not the safest city (more about this later) and I didn’t think this would be a good choice. I walked around the station, looking for a well lit, populated area to hunker down for a few hours, when I saw it, a solitary taxicab with a light on. I walked over, he said he would take me to my hotel and I hopped in.

I had been forewarned by the internet that all taxicabs in Marseille belong to the Union of Thieves, so I was expecting the worst. I calculated that I had been prepared to pay 60 Euros from the airport for a taxi so, having already spent 8 Euros on the bus, anything under 50 Euros for the 6 minute ride would be acceptable. I had obviously spent too much time in Romania, where every cab driver I encountered was a crook, because this guy took me as close as he could to my hotel – the street was blocked with construction- walked me and my bag to my locked hotel, waited until the sleeping receptionist let me in and charged me the grand total of 6 Euros. He looked at me incredulously as I gave him 10 and told him to keep the rest. Thus ended my saga with Ryanair, not a total disaster since I got to my destination eventually, albeit 2 hours late at 2:00AM.

Alas, my troubles continued. As I hit the pillow at 2:30am, the loud rat-a-tat of a jackhammer began and continued non-stop until 6AM. As I discovered in the morning, the city had given permission for construction right outside the hotel to be done in the wee hours of the morning, to spare the workers from the excessive heat, hotel guests be damned. Welcome to France!

Surviving Marseille: 

Marseille is the second largest port in the Mediterranean, after Alexandria in Egypt. It was first colonized by the Greeks 2500 years ago and has the fairly typical Mediterranean history: Greek, Roman, captured by the Goths in the 6th century and eventually adopting Catholicism, Middle Ages, part of the Provence County before joining France permanently in 1482. All of this was on display at the Marseille History Museum, conveniently attached to a shopping mall and considerately free during extreme heat days to allow people to take advantage of its air conditioning. Unfortunately, the displays were mostly only in French and its high tech audio guide, in English, was finicky and thin on facts. As a museum giving a chronological retelling of the city of Marseille, it was fine but uninspiring.

Marseille’s more recent past is more unique. As a port city, it is also an immigrant city. At the turn of the last century, Italians crossed the sea and settled, bringing with them pasta and the mafia, with its skills in drug production and drug trafficking. In the 1930’s, Nazi money funded mafia controlled heroin manufacturing facilities in Marseille. Opium was smuggled in from Turkey, manufactured then the finished product shipped to Canada and the USA. Thus the French in The French Connection movie.I n the 1950’s and 1960’s, crime related to the drug trade proliferated, but was gradually reduced by aggressive law enforcement efforts by the French and US governments, although cynics claim this resulted from the drug manufacturers moving their factories to third world countries who, by the 1970’s, had developed their own proficiency in making heroin.

Following the Algerian civil war in 1962, Africans arrived in Marseille in droves, giving the city a multi-ethnic feel. It remains the jumping off point for immigrants from former French African colonies, Tunisians, Malians, etc. Needing to house the new migrants, ugly high rise apartments known as cite were built on the outskirts, creating ghettos but multiracial ones. Today, the drug traffickers are back, but instead of being Italian based, mostly African gangs from the cite control it. Gun violence has risen exponentially, attributable to the ease of weapon smuggling arising during the Arab Spring.

My walking tour went nowhere near the cites, but instead focused on the Vieux Port (old Port) at the centre of town. Fort St. Jean and Fort St. Nicholas, both built by Louis XIV in 1660, guard the entrance to the horseshoe shaped harbour, where hundreds of boats- all nice but hardly the mega yachts of Monaco or Nice – were moored, alongside a few tourist ships.

Surrounding the harbour were dozens of restaurants and ice-cream shops, all vying for tourist dollars. A few offered the regional specialty, bouillabaisse, a fish stew meaning, literally, to boil and simmer, at only 25 Euros ($40) a serving, but the guide warned us away from these obvious (to him) fakers. Real bouillabaisse costs in excess of 100 Euros per bowl and is served only by a few longtime establishments. I’m still not crazy about shellfish, so I contented myself with another local specialty, grilled sardines, a tasty bargain at a non-tourist restaurant at only 3.5 Euros a dish.

Marseille has been trying to remake itself and distance itself from its crime-ridden past. In 2013, it was a European Capital of Culture, an annual designation of two European cities, one from the East, the other from the West, designed to promote the culture richness of a city. In its honour, Marseille constructed two museums, the aforementioned Marseille History Museum and the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations. The building housing the latter seeks to connect the city’s past with its present with a bridge between Fort St. Jean and the new square box covered in metal sculptures representing waves. I walked over the bridge and inspected the building, but passed on the interior, which exhibits had received only mediocre reviews.

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The bridge connecting Fort St. Jean to the Museum

Instead, I walked along Rue de Republic, looking much like a Paris street which is unsurprising since it was designed by Georges Haussmann, the same Haussmann who is responsible for much of Paris. Marseille’s downtown is something of an anomaly. Worried about the bubonic plague beginning in the 14th century, the city established France’s first hospital and enacted strict quarantine regulations for the large number of ships docking there. But in its last significant outbreak, the plague struck Marseille in 1720, killing nearly half the population. Those who could afford to do so abandoned their palatial homes in the city centre for the suburbs, leaving a downtown largely filled by immigrants from abroad and the country. Sadly, the centre and Rue de Republic still look largely vacant. Despite high end stores like HMV and Zara relocating there in 2013, the area could not attract sufficient numbers and today, large swaths of storefronts are empty, only a couple of restaurants are open and the hotel receptionist strongly urged me not to walk down it after dark.

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Nearby, the National Park of Calanque beckons. Wikipedia defines a calanque as a narrow, steep walled inlet developed in limestone, dolomite or other rock existing along the Mediterranean coast. Taking a 3 hour cruise on one of the tourist boats in the harbour, we passed first the Chateau d’If, the fortress/prison where the Count of Monte Cristo was incarcerated, before enjoying the views of the calanques.

Final Thoughts:

I learned my lesson about Ryanair. I would fly it again, paying in advance for every possible item but will only take it if it is the first or second flight of the day. While my flight was uneventful, the unapologetic attitude of the airline at depositing us in a city at 1:00AM was unacceptable.

As for Marseille, I spent 6 nights there, which was probably 3 nights too many. No matter how much it promotes itself as a bastion of culture, haute cuisine and safe, for me it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi that makes a city special.

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

Bucharest: Ceausescu and Architecture

Romania’s capital, Bucharest, with a population of about 2 million, is in many ways just another big, not particularly beautiful, former communist city struggling to find its way in a democratic world. Its attractions for me were twofold: to learn about yet another nutcase communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu (see About Albanian for its crazy, Enver Hoxha), and his architectural legacy.

Neo-Classism Architecture:

Bucharest styles itself the Paris of the East. It earned this title after two traditional areas that speak Romanian, Wallachia and Moldovia, were united into a single country in 1866 and ruled by a monarch, King Carol 1, a German ex-pat who was invited to be king since kings were the way to go in the mid-1800’s. This was a glorious period in Romanian history, with the king spearheading modernization programs and constructing buildings in his favourite style, French neo-classism. Many such buildings today remain scattered around Bucharest’s centre:

Other Parisienne influences include passageways, pedestrian walkways through buildings, some in good repair boasting French style bistros and hookah bars, but others less so. A former hotel/brothel passageway has seen much better days:

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A not-so-nice passageway

Colourful umbrellas decorate another passageway, disguising the hazardous nature of the building, which was severely damaged during a massive earthquake in 1977. Hundreds of such buildings exist, with telltale red circles on the outside indicating they are prone to falling down. Owners lack the funds to repair or demolish the buildings, so they await the next big earthquake in order to complete the tear down. Bucharest is in a seismic zone which traditionally experiences a major earthquake every 40 years, so it is 2 years overdue.

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A nicer looking, but condemned, passageway

The monarchy had a checkered history. While the first two kings were benevolent and conscientious, the third one, Carol II was a notorious womanizer who rubbed shoulders with Adolf Hitler and assisted Romania’s fascist general, Ion Antonescu, in seizing power. In 1944, the king’s son, Michael re-seized power, arrested Antonescu, switched sides in WW2 and joined the Allies. He ruled until 1948 when the communists took over and promptly invited King Michael and his family to flee the country.

Ceausescu:

Born in 1918 to a peasant family, Nicolae Ceausescu managed to complete 4 years of grade school before being apprenticed to a shoemaker in Bucharest. The shoemaker was a communist and Ceausescu helped out by delivering communist leaflets. He was caught and sentenced to jail. This turned out to be fortuitous as it spared him service during WW2, but more importantly, his cellmate was Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, the communist leader who was installed as President by the USSR following the war.

Ceausescu was Gheorghui-Dej’s right-hand man and upon his death in 1965, ascended to the presidency. His first few years were standard communist dictatorship with farm collectives, a secret service (the Securitate) and a preference for atheism, but in 1968, he endeared himself to the Romanian people when he refused to commit Romanian troops to assisting the USSR’s suppression of the uprising in next-door-neighbor Hungary. That the USSR did not invite Romania to Hungary was overlooked by Ceausescu, but nonetheless marked the beginning of Romania’s attempt to divorce itself from Soviet domination. Ceausescu was not all bad. In his early years, Romania’s literacy rate increased exponentially, highways and metros were constructed and most of the people had jobs and food.

Ceausescu was less successful during this period in developing a unique architectural style. Much of Bucharest consists of social realism buildings, rectangular concrete blocks of differing sizes devoid of decoration or individuality. Ceausescu decreed that people needed living space of no more than 7 metres per person, so hundreds of apartments were built with units about 40-50 metres square, less than 500 square feet, for families of 4. He didn’t tear down buildings that exceeded this, but constructed communist style edifices in front of more attractive ones to hide them from view. The blocks still stand today, functional eyesores with deteriorating stucco, air conditioning units sticking out from the windows and laundry hanging on the balconies.

The People’s Palace:

The real craziness started in 1982, following Ceausescu’s visit to North Korea. Inspired by Kim II Sung’s character cult and his grandiose buildings, Ceausescu decided to remake Bucharest into a gigantic monument to himself. As he considered a house with 170 rooms too small for his family of 5, he commissioned the largest building in Europe, to be reached by the largest street in the world, with massive administration structures nearby.

A slight problem arose as the designated area, the centre of old Bucharest, was already heavily populated, but Ceausescu was undeterred. He gave the inhabitants 24 hours to vacate before bulldozing an area 7 square kilometers in size and displacing 40,000 inhabitants. Bucharest’s infamous stray dog problem came about as a result. Most of the dislocated people didn’t have the time or the ability to take their pets, so they were left to fend for themselves. Until 2012, packs of feral dogs roamed the city, but when a boy was killed by one, the government culled them.

Another problem was lack of funds. At about the same time Romania’s IMF international loans funding its infrastructure improvements became due, Ceausescu needed more money to rebuild Bucharest. Determined to pay back the IMF and construct his $3 billion palace, Ceausescu put Romania on an austerity path that saw extreme food rationing, electricity limited to an hour per day, hot water for only 2 hours a week and a substantial decrease in living standards. Borders were closed to imports, everything that could be exported was, including people. Ceausescu joked that Romania’s best exports were Germans (to West German) and Jews (to Israel) who were allowed to emigrate upon payment by the destination countries of between 4,000 and 13,000 Euros per person, depending on their education level. For those who remained, queuing in long lines at near empty food stores, hunger and freezing in the -20 degree winters became the norm. But in 1988, Romania became the only country ever to repay the IMF.

One architect, aghast by the wholesale destruction of Bucharest’s centre, managed to save 13 buildings, including 7 churches, by devising an ingenious solution. The structures were literally dug out of the land, put on railroad tracks and moved out of the demolition zone. Today, it is possible to see these buildings, all plopped down wherever they wouldn’t offend Ceausescu’s sight, such as the library building in the church courtyard, the heaviest building moved to escape the wrecking ball.

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The library in the church courtyard

The centrepiece of the project, the People’s Palace, rises on a mound, also created, to reinforce Ceausescu’s prominence. One side looks out over Victoriei Street, a few centimetres or a few meters wider, depending on who is talking, than the Champ Élysées.

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The People’s Palace

Ceausescu never inhabited the place. On Christmas Day, 1989, he and his wife were subjected to a 2 hour showcase trial, found guilty of genocide, taken outside and executed. His right-hand man, Ion Illiescu, in a speedy about-face, disavowed communism and took over as president, subjecting Romania to 10 more years of dictatorship, equally if not more so, greedy, but not quite as crazy as Ceausescu.

The People’s Palace was unfinished in 1989, but Illiescu decided to complete it and use it as the country’s Parliament, thus its current name The Palace of the Parliament. It is normally open for guided tours, but the EU set up shop inside for 6 months and closed it to tourists while I was there. Considered the second largest administrative building in the world, behind the Pentagon, it has 8 stories underground, including a nuclear bomb shelter (Ceausescu was paranoid about the USSR attacking him), two motorway tunnels, one leading out of the city and the other to the airport so Ceausescu could escape if needed. Inside are 1100 rooms, some opulently decorated with chandeliers and extravagant carpets, but many unfurnished and unused. It is also sinking to the tune of 6 mm per year due to its weight.

Not so the neighboring Science Academy. Another humongous building, the Science Academy houses researchers and their administrators. Despite Ceausescu’s wife leaving school at 14, she fancied herself a chemist. A university in Romania bestowed a PH.D on her even though her thesis (which was later discovered to have been written by others) was delivered without an audience. Some of the building is currently used for administration and research, its front side an unkempt forest while its backside reveals the extent of the incomplete structure.

Final Thoughts:

Bucharest, French new-classicism, mixed with Art Deco, social realism and monuments to Ceausescu’s ego, some meticulously maintained, others falling to pieces, is a crazy hodgepodge of styles running in parallel with its equally crazy governments. Its history and architecture are intertwined with its governments, for better and for worse.

Next: 

Castles, Fortresses and Churches in Transylvania along with a brief mention of Dracula.