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July 10, 2018, Romania

Romania, past and present

Kieran Goh explores Communist influenced Bucharest and wanders back in time in the countryside

Kieran Goh

ON THE road from Bucharest airport to the city centre, I saw hulking grey monoliths interspersed with large but mostly featureless parks. These are the legacy of Romania’s communist era, when vast stretches of the historic centre were razed and rebuilt as staid government districts.

The most egregious example is the grandiose Palace of the Parliament, the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon in the United States.

The structure — measuring 270m by 240m and containing about 1,100 rooms — was conceived by Romania’s infamous dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1984. Today, it houses the Romanian Parliament and Senate, but substantial parts of it remain unfinished.

While Bucharest is largely a modern city, one can glimpse remnants of its past.

The 18th-century Stavropoleos Monastery is tucked in the middle of an indistinctive business district. I would have missed it, if not for the tourist crowd gathered at its entrance. The small interior sanctuary cannot comfortably fit more than five people, but it is worth queueing to get in, as it is decorated with intricate frescoes and lit evocatively by candles.

Part of Bucharest’s preserved historic centre, largely untouched under communist rule, has been gentrified and turned into a leisure destination, with a plethora of cafés and restaurants centred around the pedestrianised Strada Lipscani, its main thoroughfare.

An arched doorway there leads to Hanul lui Manuc, a bustling tourist restaurant the size of a large square. Built in 1808, it was once a caravanserai.

Bucolic scenes

The urban sprawl of Bucharest contrasts with the bucolic timelessness of the Romanian countryside, which you encounter once you get to the outskirts of the city.

In the regions of Wallachia and Transylvania, it is common to see traditionally dressed peasants ambling beside or riding on their horse-drawn carriages loaded with bales of hay.

I went to Transylvania because I wanted to see Bran Castle, often referred to as the castle of Count Dracula, author Bram Stoker’s fictional vampire character. The Count was based on Vlad Dracula, a 15th-century ruler of Wallachia, also known as Vlad the Impaler due to his nasty habit of impaling his defeated enemies on spikes.

The castle, built in 1380, has 60m-tall towers and ramparts set on a rocky bluff. Its interior has been restored and is minimally furnished in a style that evokes the 1920s and 1930s, as an homage to Queen Marie of Romania, who spent her summers there during that period and was popular due to her charitable work.

Bran Castle is not the only castle of note in Romania.

Peleş Castle, near the town of Sinaia in Wallachia, was commissioned by King Carol I and completed in 1883, and once served as the summer residence of the royal family. Its elaborately carved and decorated towers and spires look like a neo-Renaissance fantasy.

The interior of the castle is just as impressive. Its 160 rooms are richly decorated in different themes using materials such as ebony, mother of pearl, walnut and leather. Frescoes, old paintings, tapestries and ornaments adorn the walls and ceilings.

Just 12km from Bran Castle lie the ruins of the less visited Râşnov Castle, which majestically crown a hill.

The building, which dates back to 1225 and overlooks the town of the same name, once served as a defensive citadel. Because invasions took place frequently, many townsfolk ended up staying within the walls for long periods of time. The remnants of their rooms can still be seen among the ruins.

Apart from castles, there are also historic churches scattered throughout Transylvania.

Seven villages with fortified churches dating from the 13th to 16th century are collectively inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

One of the more impressive churches is the well-preserved one at Biertan, which was completed in 1522. It has three concentric layers of fortifications, each up to 10.5 feet thick and 40 feet high.

The interiors of the fortifications were labyrinthian, with different sections serving residential, work or culinary functions. In contrast, the church at the centre was barely decorated because of the early settlers’ Lutheran heritage.

Windy highway

Ceauşescu made his mark on the Romanian countryside too.

The Transfǎgǎrǎşan Highway, which straddles the Carpathian Mountains, was another colossal infrastructure project by the leader. Meant to ease traffic between Transylvania and Wallachia, drivers have to manoeuvre their way through a multitude of sharp switchbacks.

The view of the road from the highest point at 2,034m is a stunning panorama of curves.

As my car rounded a few of those curves, I saw a few brown bears eyeing some parked cars, whose occupants were busy taking photos of the views. I enthusiastically joined them, ignoring the bears.

Another place you can get a bird’s eye view of the mountains and valleys is the ruins of Poenari Fortress on the other side of the Carpathians. Access to the citadel is only by a nearly 1,500-step climb.

Although what is left of the walls is now almost completely blended into the forested rocky promontory the fortress is perched on, the panoramic view makes it worth the climb.

Two effigies of Vlad’s impaled enemies at the entrance to the fortress remind visitors of the darker moments in Romania’s past.

CITIES OF TRANSYLVANIA

The urban centres of Transylvania are showcases of the country’s heritage.

Sighișoara’s walled historic centre is a Unesco World Heritage site. This fortified mediaeval town’s most prominent landmark is a tall clock tower, which is home to the town’s history museum. The belfry features a whimsical set of seven wooden puppets, one of which appears over the side of the tower as the clock chimes at midnight.

- Sibiu, a university town, has a restored town square with handsome Teutonic architecture. Today, it is filled with cafés. The houses here have roofs with semicircular windows that look like watchful human eyes. They once served as ventilation for attic grain stores.

- Brașov, an industrial and transport hub, has a well-preserved Baroque historic centre with two defensive white towers perched on a forested ridge, and a haunting 15th-century Black Church.

GUIDELINES

I flew to Bucharest on Tarom Romanian Airlines from Sofia, Bulgaria. There are many budget airlines that fly to Bucharest from other European cities, such as Ryanair from London. From Singapore, Qatar Airways flies to Bucharest via Doha.

S$1 is equivalent to about 3 lei.

The national language is Romanian, which has its roots in Latin. English is not widely spoken.

Most of the key sights in Bucharest are within walking distance of one another. For my trip to Wallachia and Transylvania, I used the transport and guide services of UnzipRomania (www.unzipromania.com).

Tourism website in English: romaniatourism.com

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