Romania: Medieval Times
[published by the Hindustan Times, 13 December 2007]
Romania remains trapped in a past filled with castles, gypsies and legends of a bloodthirsty warrior, writes Kate Hodal…
He sat crumpled and greasy on the metal bench, watching with blood-shot eyes as our train heaved itself loudly through the icy mountains, its screeches and whistles echoing brassly in the night air, until it finally spluttered into the dark and tiny alpine station. The dusk’s dust had settled into a frosty, biting wind, and Andrei, bearing the psychotic look of an amateur kidnapper, anticipated our arrival with what could only be described as dangerous glee.
“Friends!” he waved to us toothlessly as we descended the train’s steps. ”Hello to Romania! I have car outside, to take family house stay here.” He pointed to his dented white sedan and the empty streets with a nod, and although we did not know Andrei and did not want to know Andrei, it was late and we were desperate, and his toothless smile was, somehow, disarmingly charming.
Andrei was a local accommodation scout, a man who spoke four languages fluently and earned his living camping out in train stations and coercing tourists to stay with local families instead of in hotels. In a nation famed for a past long considered socially and economically backwards, Andrei’s pushy selling of traditional homestays seemed somehow to personify Romania’s current straddling of two worlds. Tourism in the ‘land of vampires and communism’ has been slow to catch on, although the country’s recent acceptance into the European Union has thrust it into the limelight of modernity and forced the nation to prove to the world that it’s more ‘European’ than ‘Eastern’, a label it’s often disputed. And while Romania has forever touted itself as European, taking its name from the romantic but historically disputed idea that Romanians are the direct descendants of the Roman Empire, and their language – close to French and Italian – often described as a modern adaptation of Latin, the country seemed to the naked eye somehow stuck in the Middle Ages. So just how modern was Romania? We were there to find out.
STRANDED AT 2,000 FEET
We’d taken a slow train from the Art Deco-inspired capital Bucharest into the Transylvanian mountains, touted as Europe’s newest and hottest ski destination. Today a grotty fusion of ski resort and industrial graveyard, Sinaia was once the alpine retreat of kings and hermit monks and its beauty lies in the mountains themselves, a pearly white from near-constant snow from December to March. Boasting eleven black runs at a stunning height of nearly 3,000 feeet, Sinaia’s skiing is the most challenging in the country, and on a good day, you can ski the seven miles from the top of the piste down to the town itself.
In comparison to the powdery slopes and admirable infrastructure of the Alps, however, it’s difficult to see how Romania could be the next hottest ticket: while its lower costs make it amenable to skiers with low budgets, only a handful of pizzerias and two rental stores make Sinaia seem like an alpine backwater. And the lack of information in any language other than Romanian also proves disastrous: having set off early on the gorgeously deserted but icy slopes, we were happily cruising our way down one of the runs when the last cable car descended back down into town without warning. We found ourselves stranded at 2,620 feet in the early afternoon with no way to get back down but to walk, as the slopes were too icy to ski.
When high winds kept the slopes closed the next day, we decided to invest in some Romanian culture instead and headed for the nearby Peles Castle, an architectural blend of Tudor, Moroccan and Art Nouveau influences set deep in the pine forests of the Bucegi Mountains. Built to order in the late 1880s for Romania’s first king, Carol I, who used it as his summer residence, it houses an incredible collection of murals by artist-in-residence Gustav Klimt, French tapestries, Turkish furniture, and treasures from Africa and Asia. The neighbouring ‘guest house’, Pelisor, of Carol’s successor King Ferdinand and his wife Queen Marie, with its Viennese influences, is a good lesson in international affairs: Ferdinand was a German with an English wife, ruling over a country once considered the jewel of the Habsburg Empire. Skiing in Sinaia might have left a bit to be desired, but Peles Castle was a welcome introduction to the region’s history.
THE MYTH OF DRACULA
Interested in learning more about Transylvania, we set off the next day for Bran Castle, more famously known as Dracula’s Castle. Using Brasov as our base, a pastel-coloured city founded by Teutonic Knights, colonized by Saxons and once renamed as Stalin City, we crossed dusty, purple plains to see Dracula’s old town, a tourist-teeming village filled with hawkers and shops selling Dracula mugs, pins, t-shirts, bloody plastic teeth and glow-in-the-dark Virgin Marys.
Towering over the tiny village of wooden houses and a deep-blue river, Bran Castle was built around 1360 as a local residence and later taken over by soldiers defending Transylvania from marauding Ottomans, who ruled Romania on and off for 500 years. Transylvanian soldiers were known for their brutality, and Vlad Tepes, a local warrior, earned himself the nickname of ‘dracul’ (Romanian for ‘devil’) due to his penchant for impaling Turkish prisoners on wooden spikes. Whether or not he actually lived in the castle is unknown: Bram Stoker, the Irishman who created Dracula, is said to have been inspired to write the story after seeing a photograph of Bran Castle in a newspaper.
The castle was saved from war-torn disrepair by Queen Marie and King Ferdinand in the 1920s who fixed it up in a peculiarly shabby-chic kind of way, with Moroccan lanterns in the courtyard and Viennese, East Asian and African influences throughout the residence. The castle is filled with nooks and crannies, its secret staircases, bottle-glass windows, trap doors and spectacular views over the forested mountains and river below making it a spectacular and worthwhile day trip from Brasov.
Just a half-hour from Bran is Romania’s most popular ski resort, Poiana Brasov, reached by meandering, forested road and home to Romania’s most famous restaurant, Coliba Haiducilor. By Swiss standards, Poiana’s tiny: with only two cable-cars, one gondola and three drag lifts, it can leave quite a bit to be desired for the skilled skier. But for beginners, it’s a beautiful place to get your bearings.
SINGING WITH THE GYPSIES
Far more popular than Sinaia, Poiana was packed, and we wrestled for piste space with Italian schoolchildren, adventurous Americans and native Romanians, who prefer to hike the pistes instead of ski them. While queues can be long, and a good skier can do the whole resort in a day, there’s something quaint and charming about Poiana, its cafes serving ciorba (chicken stew) and large pints of Tuborg, a locally-brewed beer, and its ‘cabane’, family-friendly wood cabins with bunk beds and self-accommodating kitchens popular with locals.
Having skied to our hearts’ content in fresh, powdery snow, we spent our last evening in Poiana Brasov dining on roast boar and venison at Coliba Haiducilor, an old-style hunting lodge made warm with bear skins, a roaring, open fire, gallons of wine and a Gypsy band that wanders from table to table. As I sipped a sweet, local wine, I thought about Andrei and his desire to introduce tourists to his nation’s traditions. Romania might be on the brink of modernity, but for a people who prefer hiking to skiing, homestays to hotels, why the hurry to make the nation more ’European’? “Romania is a marvelous country,” said my Berlitz Pocket Guide to Romania, the only guidebook I could find on the country. It sure is: let’s just hope it stays that way.