Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Romania in Bits and Pieces: The Mountains

There is a saying in Romania: "Beautiful country, too bad it's inhabited."  I’m reminded of that every time I go back.  From the Black Sea coast, to the Danube and its magnificent Delta, to up high in the mountains, where both natural and man-made wonders abound, there is peerless beauty.  An abundance of it.  Unfortunately – and I must admit, looks like things are improving somewhat – it’s hard to enjoy most of it, since at every turn there are “opportunists” that don’t understand the concept of “repeat business” or “referral business” and look to take advantage of tourists with every chance they get.  I’m sure that’s the main reason tourism hasn’t picked up as well as it did in other countries that [not so] recently emerged from under the Iron Curtain…

Since I grew up there, I get it:  some of it is “cultural” and some is due to the socio-economic factors; and although things have improved some in recent years, it’s not enough to warrant rave reviews (relative to the services provided) from anyone travelling through the country.  On the other hand, the natural beauty remains and it does warrant those rave reviews!  Hence the quote in the opening paragraph…

On this occasion, we made our way up to Brașov – my second favorite city in Romania – crossing the Bucegi Massive via the Prahova Valley, an ancient mountain passage linking the former Wallachia to Transylvania, land of the Dracula tales.  The 70 km stretch of road between Breaza (where the climb starts) and Brașov (on the other side of the mountains) is stringed up with some of the most famous resorts in the country.  It’s also a very popular route, so avoid it around weekends, unless you’re prepared to cover the distance in 2 hours or more…

First notable stop: Sinaia, a very popular resort town, at one point the summer residence of the Romanian monarchy.  Built around a monastery dating back to 1695, the name actually comes from the Biblical Mount Sinai (where allegedly Moses received the Ten Commandments).  So there!  The more you know…  

The main attraction (although the whole town is worth strolling/hiking through) is, of course, the Peleș Castle, a Neo-Renaissance gem built around the end of the 1800’s by Romanian King Carol I to serve as summer residence.  At the time, it was quite an architectural achievement, considering it had central heating throughout and a lot of other notable “firsts”.  At a price tag around $120 M in today’s dollars, without counting the multiple additions between 1883 and 1914, no expense was spared.  After careful restoration (and surviving the communist regime) the palace is probably one of the best I’ve ever visited.  Definitely much better than Bran (the famed Dracula castle that’s just on the other side of the Bucegi Natural Park).  Here's a few snapshots to give you a sense of how extravagant this is:

While you’re here, make some time for the smaller “castle” in this complex: the Pelișor.  Not as impressive, or extravagant, but worth a quick peek nonetheless.

A small parenthesis around the topic of Romanian monarchy, as I’ve always been intrigued by what we “learned” in history class during communist times, and what actually happened over the years (in typical censored fashion those two are usually not the same).  Also wondering – as I tend to have a certain level of admiration for countries and cultures where the monarchy element (official or ceremonial) is still present –  what would Romania be today if Russia didn’t put their ugly communist stamp on the place?

What intrigues me is that I learned in [communist] history class that Alexander Ioan Cuza was the one that officially united for the first time Wallachia and Moldavia, thus setting the stage for what it later became Romania.  But “true” history reveals a different tale.  The political arena around the 1860’s – especially as it relates to that part of the world – was “closely managed” by the Great Powers and Empires at the time.  Specifically, Wallachia and Moldavia were tributaries under Ottoman Empire suzerainty, which means they had some internal autonomy, but the Empire controlled the foreign policy, international relations, etc.  And after the Congress of Paris in 1856 (post Crimea War) these two were recognized as quasi-independent self-governing principalities under protection of the other European Power.  So, Cuza really had more of an “administrator” role.  Although he “united” the two principalities (more a “de facto” rather than official union) it was not approved by the major powers at the time (Austrian empire in particular, and of course, the Sultan).  Although he had some success in that role, Cuza was ultimately forced to abdicate and was exiled.  He died in Heidelberg, Germany.  Wish I knew that when I visited that place a few years ago…  If you’re ever in the Rhine-Neckar valley, it’s definitely worth a stop.  But I digress…

In order to bring some stability to a “country” that was at the crossroads of international interests (Russia in the East, Austro-Hungary in the West and the Ottoman Empire in the South) the politicians decided it would be best to bring in a foreign ruler with official pedigree (that’s just how things were done during that era).  Romania was very pro-French (Bucharest was known as “little Paris” after all) and the first choice – Philip I, Count of Flanders – declined.  OK, so he was not exactly “French” (Belgian as a matter of fact) but you get the gist of that nomination…

The second choice, Prince Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (became King Carol I) was actually recommended by Napoleon III and eventually took the throne in 1866, with the discreet consent from Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck.  He wanted to bring a Western outlook into a country still dominated by an Oriental mindset (boy, how little has that changed, after all these years…) but also represent the Prussian and Austrian powers in an area of the world where Turkish occupation was beginning to loosen its grip. Now the Austrians not approving that “union” made more sense.  They were thinking longer term… So about eleven years later, supporting the Russians in the Russo-Turkish war Carol I gained independence for Romania, and another 3 years later (March 1881) he became King.

For the next 67 years, the house of Hohenzollern – first Carol, then Ferdinand, Michael, Carol II and Michael again – continued to rule Romania and to juggle interest from the West and pressures from Russia.  Ultimately Russia “won” and although Michael was the last King to be removed from under the Iron Curtain (1948) the last few years were mainly symbolic, since the communists took over – in essence – towards the end of WWII.

The funny thing is, this whole period between Cuza abdicating (1860) and the beginning of WWII, (around 1940) seems to get very little coverage in the communist history books I grew up with.  In both WWI and II Romanian was “neutral” initially (although we allowed Germany and Austria access through, and some provisions/oil in both instances) and I’m sure the monarchy’s pedigree may have had something to do with that.  The tides turned, eventually, and the commies came on top.  The rest is “history”, but I still can’t help wondering what Romania would have been today, had the country remained under monarchic rule…

Oh, well, all water under the bridge now.  Napoleon once said “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon”.  Can’t argue with that…

So there.  All that historical interlude for a version of that truth… Let’s get back on the road!

Less than 10 km up the road, Bușteni offers a few good reasons to stop.  There’s the imposing Cantacuzino castle (allegedly descendants from a Byzantine Emperor back in the 14th century), the Caraiman Monastery (on an impressive backdrop), but most importantly, the cable car that whisks people to the top for a chance to see the natural monuments of Babele and the Sfinx (the Old Women and the Sphinx).  OK, maybe whisk is not the right term, as this thing is older than grandma, only carries about 20 people at a time, and the “whisking” usually incurs a long wait (given the reduced capacity and speed).  But once on top, it’s absolutely worth it.  What’s not worth it – at least in my opinion – is the offer from the people in the valley that claim to take you up the mountain in their Jeep (thus bypassing the cable car long waiting line).  Not entirely true, since the highest point they’re allowed (Cabana Piatra Arsă) is still a good hour away (hiking) from those natural monuments.  Driving beyond that point is not allowed; it’s a natural reservation after all, although some don’t seem to care, despite the steep penalties...

From what I hear, the wait at the cable car is usually very long, especially on weekends and during high season.  We got lucky.  Only had to wait 10 minutes and we were off.  The valley below opens grandiosely as the cable car slowly creaks up the mountain.  By the time you get up (1,300 m above Bușteni) the air is so fresh and ozone rich.  Crisp and refreshing.  A real treat for the lungs!

There are several hiking options from this plateau: one hour away is the Heroes’ Cross on Caraiman (WWI monument) that offers fantastic views of the valley below.  In the opposite direction, there's an hour and a half to Ialomiţa Caves (Peştera Ialomiţei).  That’s just naming the ones nearby… There are plenty more for hiking enthusiasts.

Unfortunately, we were greeted by a "furious" storm cloud that seemed to get darker by the minute.  Sure enough, we spent just a few minutes around these interesting rock formations before the storm unleashed.  And I mean poured “buckets” for what seemed a good 20 minutes… So much for the plans to hike to the Cross.  Better luck next time…

Although there are a few more resorts lined up along the Prahova valley, Predeal is the only sizable one, and it’s the highest town in Romania (at over 1,000 m altitude).  I still have fond memories of vacationing in the area as a child.  And going to a chalet named Cioplea.  Always thought it was a funny name…

Right before getting to Brașov, one suggestion is a quick detour to the Seven Ladders Canyon (Canionul Șapte Scări).  It’s only a one hour hike from the main road; we hiked it a good 26 years ago and it was well worth it.

As I already mentioned, Brașov is my second favorite city in Romania (for obvious reasons, Constanța will always be first).  Frankly, when I compare the two today, my home town is way behind when it comes to cleanliness, services, overall appearance, etc.  Hopefully the new mayor will change that…

Some of it has to do with the picturesque setting right under Tâmpa, that allows those who climb up (or take the cable car) fantastic panoramic views of the city below.  Some, is undoubtedly the yin to my “grew-up-on-the-sea-side” yang.  Some might have to do with all the family and friends I have in Brașov.  For whatever reason, I love it there!

A few snaps from the "Black Church" (many times in the area, first time inside):

For a quick detour, Poiana Brașov (only about 20 mins up the mountain) is a great resort both in the summer, and the winter (if hitting the slopes is more your thing).  It was the place to go during communist times.  Now it’s a bit overcrowded, but still worth it.  The cable car ride up to Postăvaru peak offers a nice panorama on both sides of the massif.  I found this pic on Wikipedia (credit to "Neighbor's goat") and thought it was an amazing shot:

photo cred: Neighbor's goat - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42917524

The castle you see at the bottom (Râșnov Citadel, circa 1200’s) is a stronghold that dates back to the Dacian times (most of what we know today as Romania was called Dacia prior to the Roman Empire conquest).  It’s only about 10 km from Poiana, and another 15 km further south, there's the famed Bran Castle, with all its Dracula stories.  In all fairness, Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Țepeș), the putative inspiration for the Dracula legend, had very little to do with this castle.  Yet, history has no chance in front of Hollywood.  So there!

Didn’t visit either on this trip, therefore no recent pics, but I recommend both.  I remember my son (3 or 4 at the time) sneaking under the “do not enter” ropes and enjoying his milk bottle right on “Dracula’s bed” ;-) 

As Brașov is centrally located, there are cool itineraries in every direction.  This time around, we headed west, planning to cross the mountains via the Transfăgărașan (last couple times I attempted it, it was closed due to late snow).  An hour into the drive, the Făgăraș Citadel – once a stronghold against the Turks, later a prison for opponents and dissidents of the communist regime – is worth a quick stop.  But not on a Monday, as it’s closed.  The fellow at the gate was very nice and recommended we stop at the Cârţa Monastery, a former Cistercian (Benedictine) abbey, as it was on the way.  It’s well worth the slight detour, as you can see from the pics.  And I hear the food they serve is pretty great also!

Another hour west – and definitely worth a stop if you’re in the area – is the city of Sibiu.  Many claim it’s the nicest, cleanest, best-run city in Romania.  The current president was once a mayor here.  That says a lot!  But no time to venture out, as we had a schedule to stick to.  So after Cârţa, it was off to the south, deep into the mountains.

As the Făgăraș massif starts getting “bigger” by the minute right outside your windshield, a feeling of heightened anxiety takes over.  The mountain erupts in vertical jagged edges as you’re thinking: “I’m about to drive across that!”  Across the highest mountains in Romania, that is (with at least 8 peaks topping the 2,500 meters mark).  I’m sure for anyone who drove any of a number of roads through the Rockies that’s not as impressive, (personally I drove last year through the Tioga Pass in the Sierra Nevada, at over 3,000 m) but for Romania, it is!

By Saturnian (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) 

The Transfăgărașan is the second highest paved road in the country (after Transalipna, further to the west) and was built by Ceaușescu’s regime (early 70’s) as a potential military outlet in case of a Russian invasion similar to the one in Czechoslovakia ( in ’68).  Either that, or Ceaușescu was pissed that the Transalipna (known as the King’s Road locally, as it was built during the reign of Carol II) was the only alpine crossing in existence.  Ego, military strategy, delusion of grandeur, whatever the reason, it’s there now.  And it’s quite an experience.  I’ve actually seen it listed in at least a couple places as a “top 10” road in the world.  Go figure!  Here's a link and a recent YouTube video from "Top Gear" if you want to learn more.

About half way through the climb, the Bâlea waterfall offers an opportunity to stop and take in the scenery.  There are a few souvenir stands and places to grab a quick bite.  If you’re so inclined, you can take the cable car to the top.   This website is quite useful (and cool, I might add).  So it this one.

This guy takes the figurative expression "herding sheep" to another level...

Unfortunately, most of the nicer pictures can’t be taken from the road (limited view) especially on a rainy/overcast day; one has to climb up on the nearby peaks.  I just simply “borrowed” some of the better ones (with the necessary disclaimers and credits) from the net:

By BáthoryPéter (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)
Photo cred: Catalin Petolea
Photo cred: Catalin Petolea
By Michalronsko (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

After the road winds around for a good half hour, you find yourself at the top, where the Bâlea Lake plateau opens up to offer some glorious views of the valley below.  That is if the weather cooperates and the cloud cover is not too low.  Even if it is (which means visibility will be very low) the weather here changes by the minute.  Give it some time, and it will clear.  Go grab a bite at one of the lodges (at least try the traditional “papanași”; you’ll thank me, although your waistline may not be too happy).

The road continues with a tunnel about 900 m long that cuts across the mountain through the rock.  Once on the other side, the descent starts and the visibility is usually clear.  It’s the south side of the versant.  The sunny side.  The Capra waterfall (“Goat”) provides a quick photo op just on the side of the road.  The lodge with the same name offers another option for a pit-stop.  Or an opportunity to cool the breaks.  If you do stop, try the “bulz” (a traditional Romanian dish of baked polenta with cheese and sour cream; it may not sound like much, but with fresh local ingredients and the right preparation it’s quite a treat!)

For the next hour, the road winds down the mountain descending from about 2,000 m to 800 m at Vidraru Dam (when built, in 1966, it ranked 6th in Europe and 9th in the world; now it’s not even in top 100).  At some point it was the 8th highest bungee jump spot in the world; now it’s closed).

Just down the street, another “Dracula” castle (Poenari) – now in ruin – can be visited if your legs can carry you up the almost 1,500 steps to the top.  Many claim this is the “real” Dracula caste, since Vlad III repaired and fortified it in the 15th century (it was originally built in the 13th, and by then it was already abandoned).  This link provides a bit more info on it.

By Emmanuel BRUNNER Manu25 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The last notable stop on this itinerary (30 mins further south): Curtea de Argeș Cathedral, a Byzantine architecture with Moorish arabesques that clearly speaks to the Turkish influences at the time (16th century) even on traditional Orthodox churches.  Although small by “cathedral” standards (it really is more similar in size to a regular church) it has a unique architecture and exquisite details.  A few significant historical figures are interred here, including Neagoe Basarab (the Voivode (Prince) of Wallachia at the time, and the one who “built” it) as well the first two kings of Romania and their respective queens: Carol I and Elisabeth, Ferdinand and Maria.   

At this point, the mountains are just a distant backdrop, and in less than two hours across the fertile southern plains you’re in Bucharest, the Romanian capital that almost everyone I talk to confuses with Budapest.  It's my least favorite city in the country.  There.  I said it.  With no apologies offered to anyone that might be offended (although at first chance I might offer a “consolation” drink to any of my friends that are either currently or have at some point called it “home”)…

Regardless... it is a huge city.  Typical Eastern European capital.  Vestiges of the communist past still omnipresent.  Oh, those apartment buildings (matchboxes, we used to call them).  Traffic is unbearable.  Drivers just "crazy".  Yet in all that mayhem, there are a few things worth visiting: the palace of Parliament (second largest government building in the world, after the Pentagon), the Old Town (around Lipscani) that survived most of the communist demolitions and has been [mostly] restored, a hand full of parks (Herăstrău and Cișmigiu most notable) as well as several museums.  But the "Little Paris" (or Paris of the East) is no longer there.  Most of the elegant architecture and sophistication that once afforded the city that nickname was destroyed by wars and [primarily] Ceaușescu's program of "systematization"... What a pity... 

This was just a small snippet of an otherwise “rich” high-altitude landscape.  Two thirds of the country is covered by mountains and hills.  Some are volcanic (now extinct) and the main “arc” of the Carpathians extends for over 1,000 km, from the north border with Ukraine, to the south where the Danube enters the country.  There are over 120 glacial lakes (St. Ana the most famous), countless caves, a gorgeous network of hiking trails, and some of the most breathtaking scenery in this corner of the world.  A lot of it has been falling victim to logging and deforestation (most of it illegal) and there are active efforts to preserve one of the oldest forested areas in Europe.  Dotted throughout this landscape, there are thousands of attractions that would keep one busy for weeks.  Old monasteries, vestiges and castles, preserved cities with clear multicultural imprints, national parks, resorts, and in the rural areas, a way of life that’s been preserved for hundreds of years (for that reason alone Prince Charles [the one next in line for Elizabeth’s throne] has bought a lot of property in the area and visits quite often) .  Too bad the government doesn’t put some money into advertising the “beauty” that this country has to offer, or provide incentives to enhance tourism.  Perhaps it does, but the money [in typical corrupt fashion] always lands in the wrong pockets.  Who am I kidding?  “Maybe” should be left out of the previous sentence.   This is Romania, after all… and sadly, we have a “reputation” to uphold… 

As I said at the beginning of this entry: "Beautiful country, too bad it's inhabited!"

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... and the other entries from this summer's vacation: my Hometown and the Danube Delta

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