Bran, Rasov, and Peles

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September 13th 2011
Published: September 19th 2011
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I was up at 7, feeling quite good -- considering how many empty wine bottles are in the kitchen. Short yoga routine, then breakfast, then shower, then got organized for our first day trip. We met Florin outside at 8:30; we had a surprise guest along for our tour. She was a very quiet young woman from Japan. Sadly, none of us can remember her name.

The car is a smallish car but with a third row of seats. The Japanese girl was in the front passenger seat, three of us in the regular back seat, and one in the “back back”. Quite cozy.

Today's tour is the “three castle tour”. We drove through a few small Saxon villages, and Florin explained how to differentiate the Saxon buildings and the Romanian buildings. Saxon buildings have a certain shape to the roof, a particular placement of widows, and a German name and the year the house was built are inscribed over a front archway. As we drive, the mountains are getting closer and looming larger. Florin points out a particular peak that he refers to as the “dangerous mountain.” He says that rock-climbers die every year on that particular peak. The views are breathtaking, and the roads are windy.

First stop was Bran Castle. Florin pulled over at a good vantage point for a photo, and then we drove another few kilometers and parked the car. Florin admitted that he is not particularly fond of this castle; says he likes it on the outside but not the inside. He left us at the gates and said to meet him in the marketplace in one hour.

The five of us entered the castle together but soon separated as we each had different interests. Carrie and I explored the most. We both liked the castle very much. It is a comfortable castle, more like a very large house. I could imagine living there; it is very welcoming -- the rooms feel cozy instead of intimidating. There was one room called the “music room and library” that I especially loved. I could imagine it as my own flat; one large comfortable room with several window seats and two fireplaces. One was inside a reading nook with built-in couches. Books lined the walls. The main entrance was from a “secret staircase” – a stone stairway inside of a tunnel. There was also a very pretty balcony with built-in seating, looking down into a central courtyard and out over the lower roofline into lush Bran Valley. If only it was available, I’d move in tomorrow.

The castle had many staircases every-which-way. I think I could easily get lost. Also many balconies and overlooks, and a few courtyards. Very pretty.

One very small room included an explanation of the Dracula association to Bran Castle, translated into several languages. Vlad the Impaler, whose father was known as Dracul because he was in the Order of the Dragon (Dracul translates to both dragon and devil in Romanian) is a very real historical figure. But Dracula the vampire, not so much! Bram Stoker used some legends and a lot of imagination -- and not a whole lot of history -- to write Dracula. The film-makers used Bran Castle as a model for Dracula’s castle. Most likely Vlad the Impaler never set foot in this castle.

We learned from Florin (augmented by some history that Carrie had read) about Queen Marie of Romania. This cleared up some references in The Balkan Trilogy that I had not understood. She was an English princess -- the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria. She married the son of Carol I, who became King Ferdinand. She became a true Romanian patriot. In her words: "I was barely seventeen when I came to you. I was young and ignorant, but very proud of my native country, and even now, I am proud to have been born an Englishwoman... but I bless you, dear Romania, country of my joy and my grief, the beautiful country which has lived in my heart." Highlights ... she was a Red Cross nurse administering to soldiers in WW I, and had a giant (30m by 14m) cross built on the peak of Caraiman Peak. (We saw that cross several times during our train and car rides.) She was also a military strategist and a diplomat. When she died, her will stipulated that her heart be kept in a cloister ... that land was transferred to Bulgaria as part of an agreement with Germany in 1940 at which time her heart (in a glass jar, I believe ... or maybe a silver box?) was moved to Bran Castle, where it was until 1971; now it is in a museum in Bucharest. (I am not making this up, nor

Clearly a Hollywood-sign-peddling American must have visited this area.
is it legend ... this is 'fact stranger than fiction' type stuff.) Her son Carol II was the king who abdicated during World War II. And there's more ... romance, scandal, politics, war ... it's a fascinating story, and there is much more of it than I could summarize here ... go forth and google! Or better yet, read her memoirs, "The Story of my Life" (you'd think that title would be taken...)

Long line in WC, after we were done -- other than that we managed to avoid the crowds. Florin says this is not a fun place to come on the weekends; way too many people.

We did a little tchotchke shopping in the market at the outside of Bran Castle, then back to the car. (The obligatory Vlad the Impaler and Bran Castle mugs, magnets, t-shirts. I also bought a Romanian Monopoloy game!)

We drove from there to Rasnov, a very old fortress, possibly dating back to Roman times. Walked 1 km, very much “up”, to base of fortress, then continued up a winding uphill walkway to the citadel. Rasnov is arranged as a walled village, and has a bit of a Pompeii feel to it. Private souvenir shopkeepers have been allowed to set up within the center of the citadel, within the more intact stone structures. From the very top there were stunning views, but it was not completely clear; there was a bit of a haze at the horizon in the distance – I imagine that the view is truly amazing on a perfectly clear day. Can definitely see why this site was chosen for a fortress! I bought a print of an old map, from the 1500s.

I'll take a moment now to talk about Florin, who will be our driver for three day-trips.

... we found Florin's "Brasov Day Trips" online; he has a website advertising various trips for between 1 and 6 persons, "with an English-speaking guide." I discovered while arranging the trips via email that Florin's English is not quite fluent, but he is self-taught and does very well especially within the vocabulary of his trips. (Conversations that went off-topic were a bit more difficult, and occasionally comical.) He is about our age -- mid-40s. He is divorced with a son who is 22, and he is engaged to be married in late October. He went to university for history, and is a self-described "talker".

He drives very fast, which took a bit of getting used to ... and some of us never did quite get used to it. After each of us had a turn in the front seat he ruled that I was the only one allowed to sit there; because I was the one least likely to flinch when he passed a car (or better yet, a horse-drawn cart) while hurtling around a hairpin turn. I rather like the front seat because you get a more wide-open view of the scenery. I also enjoyed trying out my Romanian, both on Florin, and by listening to the radio. When you know numbers and the verbs "to want, to have, and to be", you can understand many advertisements. Florin was a bit harsh on my pronunciation of Romanian, which was a bit hard on my ego. But he was fun to talk to; very engaging, very free with his opinions, and very happy and proud to share all of his knowledge about his country.

This description from my guidebook actually described Florin quite well (and a few other Romanians we became acquainted with): "Romanians tend to be down-to-earth, don't waste time on false niceties, and like people who are open but also pragmatic and forthright. They are often strong-minded, charming, stubbornly proud and staunchly aware of their roots."

Next stop after Rasnov was Sinaia, where we went to a very small traditional patisserie, at Florin's recommendation. Best cheese roll I've ever had, I ate it ravenously. Then on to Peles castle. Florin explained that we would now see why he does not find the inside of Bran castle to be very impressive.

Peles was like a fairy tale castle; so extravagant, so many details. It was constructed by Carol I in 1873 as a summer residence. We were all surprised it survived communism ... afterwards I checked the guidebook and apparently Ceausescu used it to entertain and impress foreign leaders. There were three levels of tours to purchase; we did the lowest level of tour; a one hour tour of about 30 rooms; the more extensive tour was three hours long and included many more of the 170 rooms in the castle. The rooms that we saw were quite stunning, most of them named and decorated for particular countries. (Note: photos were not allowed inside ... unless you wanted to pay an extra "photographer tax" of 120 lei.) After touring the interior (we actually managed to go through twice), we walked around the stunning exterior, through gardens and stone balconies.

Again, some fascinating stories; this time about Queen Elizabeth of Romania. She was married to King Carol I (Fernidad, husband of Marie was an adopted nephew; Elizabeth and Carol I had no heirs) and was an accomplished musician, artist, and writer, and published under the psuedonym "Carmen Sylva". She also wrote and illustrated a bible which is displayed at Curtea de Arges. She was a champion of higher education for women.

We then rested on a terrace in view of the castle for refreshments. We were joined by about 10 stray dogs and 5 stray cats. I mentioned that Leslie and I had seen some stray dogs in Bucharest. They seem to be everywhere in Romania. Cats too. A few look sad and hungry or sick. And I'm sure that winters are very hard on them. But most actually seem happy, and *none* of them were at all aggressive. Florin explained that they are not really owner-less; they are owned by all. He said that they are actually well-fed, and get positive attention from townspeople. And they certainly have all the freedom they want. Again, I am fully aware that they would be better off with vet care and clearly population control is wanting. But compared to other places I've been that have stray dog problems, these guys were very happy.

Back to the car for ride home. A few more stops for fabulous views. We were conveniently slowed down in Busteni because of what passes as "rush hour" traffic in a small town in Romania. The town itself was nothing too special, but the views from there of the Bucegi Mountins were spectacular. Here is how the guidebook describes it: "Busteni, hovering beneath the mighty Caraiman (2384m) and Costila (2490m) peaks to the west and Mt Zamora (1519m) to the east."

Florin dropped us off at 4:30 - naptime for Tammie and Leslie who needed some recuperation from staying up too late last night; I got up a bit groggily at 5:30 for a cab to dinner.

We ate at Prato -- best meal so far of the vacation. Italian, delicious salads and fish and pasta all around. Pretty restaurant with a spacious balcony along a side pedestrian-only street. After dinner we went back to Friends Cafe (3rd time) -- we are regulars now. Enjoyed some additional refreshments and wi-fi catch-up. Then another cab ride back home.

One glass of wine on Carrie's “luxurious veranda” then everyone went to sleep ... except for me, up typing this journal entry.

Tomorrow we visit Sighisoara and Sibiu. We are meeting Florin at 8:00am.


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