Romania: Blood, Betrayal, and Decapitation

Nope, I am not talking about the region’s famed citizen, Count Dracula. I am referencing the images on the walls of the painted monasteries in Moldova, the northern region of Romania near the Ukrainian border. The country exudes color—historically, architecturally and interpersonally (especially after a few rounds of plum brandy). When you ask people how they’re doing, they don’t respond with the typical American, “fine,” they actually tell you how hard it’s been, share memories of standing in line for milk and relate the continued dependence on bread to fill one’s belly. There is a heaviness, warmth and an unquestionable great appreciation that a foreigner from America would make the trip to visit. Repeatedly we were thanked for being curious and for caring to learn about Romania. The literal translation is “citizens of Rome,” first used by Italian humanists in the 16th century traveling in Transylvania, Moldova and Wallachia, the very regions we transversed. The country has endured centuries of defensive posturing, fortifications against aggressive neighbors and failed leadership. The lumbering expanse is waking up. It’s a big lift to modernize, and Romania seems exhausted.

Our travels began in Bucharest, not Budapest—a mistake made by both Michael Jackson and Madonna when they welcomed their concert crowds—and an error made all the worse given the centuries-old rivalry (and struggles for control over Transylvania) between Romania and its neighbor, Hungary. But local eyes are focused on France for comparison, and many have called Bucharest “Little Paris.” It’s true. The avenues are tree-lined, wide and gracious. Many of the buildings are charming old world reminders of just how rich the cultural heritage is.

Today the old town center, the Lipscani area, has an energetic, youthful scene vibrating beside an extraordinarily vast but embarrassingly hollow monument built by the fallen dictator, Ceausescu. The People’s Palace, or Palatul Parlamentylui, is of preposterous scale, designed by a woman, Anca Petrescu, who beat the male responders to the despot’s RFP. How? She delivered a bigger scale model and it won her the assignment. Men can be so simple. The Parliament boasts 3.76 million square feet and is the world’s second largest administrative building after the US Pentagon. The road leading up to it is deliberately a few feet wider than the Champs Elysees. Ceausescu never actually inhabited the place as he was tried and executed all in the same day back in 1989 before the edifice was completed. I hate to see unused space, especially when there is room for a big dance floor and outdoor balconies for cocktails. We figured maybe we could throw a party and get the walls glowing. Turns out one can rent the government’s enormous banquet rooms for 16,000 Lei (or four thousand US dollars per day).

Bad monuments in building and statue form seem to plague Bucharest. After a long walk about town I asked about the “ugly statue” I had seen earlier in the day and received a detailed history lesson. When I admitted to not seeing the bronze she-wolf, my guide responded, “Oh you meant the other really hideous blight on our city.” Rough crowd. Just ask anyone who has been the subject of the many protests that are as much a part of the culture as polenta is part of every meal.

Sinning, praying and playing music meld effortlessly together. Churches abound (there are 18,000 in the country, or one for every hundred people). We were told, “When we can’t think of anything else to do, we build another church.” There appear to be at least an equal number of massage parlors in Bucharest. The ornate Athenaeum, where we saw the Bucharest Symphony rehearsing, with its renowned acoustics and champagne glass like staircases in each corner of the lobby is across from one of the many casinos. We visited two synagogues. One functions now to only document the Holocaust, the other (continuously renovated and beautiful) still serves the few remaining Jews. Imagine my surprise when the musicians at the famed Bucharest beer hall, Caru cu Bere, played “Hava Nagila.” Evidentially, horas aren’t just for Jewish celebrations.

The denizens of the city’s capital like to party. The streets are filled with people, public displays of affection seem quite acceptable, and some women (out with friends) wear their shirts open to expose their bras—yet the city doesn’t seem seedy or menacing. At midnight this past Saturday, we finally snagged a seat at one of the many outdoor establishments and enjoyed the overflowing parade of people on the cobblestone streets.

This year’s preferred fashion for the women in “Little Paris,” is torn jeans and high-heeled sneakers, an exposed midriff, blonde hair and red lipstick. As my Russian cousin, Alex, would say looking at the bottled color, the roots reveal these women’s dark past. The men aren’t nearly as done up as the ladies, though they seem to have a proclivity for gold chains, facial hair and excessive smoking. Correction: everyone seems to have a cigarette hanging from their lips.

You can imagine that there’s a good lifestyle for those who can afford it. Just two hours north of the city are two lovely mountain spa and ski towns whose alpine feel and Saxon flavor are quite similar to those we have seen in Western Europe, except here there are castles too! In Sinaia (named after Mount Sinai in Israel) is Peles Castle, a royal summer residence for the first king of Romania, Carol I. It is warm, lived in and human scale in comparison to Ceausescu’s overbearing shrine. Each room in the castle was decorated to reflect a different European country. It was the first to be electrified in the world and has an elevator, an internal vacuum system and many light bulbs. Just like my home! It also has a stylishly displayed weapon collection which is a vital feature in many venues we visited; a continued affirmation of the ceaseless neighborly aggression (not like our home).

One comes to appreciate the awe inspired by Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula). According to legend, he protected the Romanian empire from the Ottomans (despite a substantially smaller army) by capturing soldiers, piercing their bodies by driving a stake from their bowels up through their spines and displaying the dying as if they were flags lining the streets. The thoroughly freaked out Ottomans beat a hasty retreat.

The modern day flag that surprised us upon entering the charming Saxon hill town called Viscri was the Union Jack. It turns out that Prince Charles has a penchant for rural Romanian real estate and has bought property and supported trusts to restore and maintain town structures, which like many in the region are painted in a variety of pastels. To me, the colors were reminiscent of seaside homes in Curacao (go figure). Even the toilet paper is multicolored in this country Just wait until eco concerns catch up with them. But first I suggest cleaning up the population’s lungs (see above on cigarettes).

We were treated like royalty in Viscri, where we began our lunch with smoky plum schnapps that rivals fine single malt and had chicken noodle soup that would give Manischewitz a run for its money. Home-cooked meals in the countryside are literally a cottage business and we ate several in people’s kitchens. The domestic settings were far more appealing than the tiled dungeon-styled dining rooms that seemed to be preferred by many urban proprietors. The rural meal always commenced with schnapps and was replete with a repast that would make my grandma proud. While going for a beer or a coffee is common, eating a full meal out is not. As a result, restaurateurs have yet to learn about diversity. If you have a persistent hankering for sour cream, peasant bread, pickles, eggplant salad, lamb pastrami, duck liver and more sour cream, then Romanian restaurants are made for you. If on the other hand you want to reunite with the spirit of my grandma Lena in the kitchen, then eat in the farmhouses. One night our meal began with blintzes, followed by matzoh ball soup, then stuffed cabbage. Between the wide-hipped women and the food of my ancestors, I felt increasingly (wide) and at home as my travels went on. Now if only we can find an exporter of the fine wine we had one night—Rosu de Petro Vaselo, a Romanian Cabernet.

One can’t help but be moved by the people’s sweet innocence, juxtaposed with centuries-old sadness. Without a hint of irony, we were proudly directed to “tourist traps,” hastily constructed to service the presumed visitor’s quest for “vintage” white peasant shirts, “antique” rugs and “rustic” pottery. The latter, made in people’s homes as we watched the artists throw pots on their wheels and were offered cakes, had more appeal to me than the ceramics. Our various hosts were eager to communicate, though few spoke English. When she heard we were from NYC, one female potter drew us pictures of the twin towers and wrote the number 15 (the years from then to now) and a heart with tears.

Driving through the Transylvanian countryside, we heard a tale of clandestine tunnels and extraterritorial life discovered in the summer of 2003, in an unexplored area of the Bucegi Mountains. After a team from Zero Department (a top secret section of the Romanian Intelligence Service) discovered tables fit for giants and a library of information on the creation of the world, their findings were suppressed by both the Vatican and the US government. To me, the narrative was emotionally resonant for a nation desperate to be recognized for its historical relevance.

Our trail led us from the southern border with Bulgaria, up through the center of the country, to the Ukrainian border, a continual treat of rolling farm lands, painted houses and hair pinned turns through the mountains. I can now even say, “Transylvania” with a straight face and will willingly confirm that exchanges at the Bank of Transylvania don’t conclude with a withdrawal of blood. The region is a melting pot of cultures set in lush scenery that would inspire Villeroy and Boch designs.

We spent a night in Brasov at the foothills of Mount Tampa overlooking the town square, where we enjoyed the noisy children’s festival day filled with performances and oversized kiddy cars racing through the medieval market streets—the very alleys where the children enticed by the pied piper in Germany were said to have emerged from underground. Brasov isn’t risking any lost adults—it has a glowing sign in the hills saying, “Brasov,” echoing the one in Hollywood.

Tourists come to Brasov to see the Black Church, Europe’s easternmost gothic specimen. If you can tear your eyes away from the yummy chocolate shop windows and look up to the church roof, you would find a statue of a guy preparing to jump. Why? The building’s masons were trapped up there after boastfully affirming that they could build a bigger and better house of worship. Wrong answer! Their patron wanted his commissioned cathedral to be the best in the land.

We continued on to Sighisoara, another fortified medieval town where each guild has its own entrance to the old city. There are gates for the carpenter, furrier, cobbler, etc. Imagine what NYC would be like with separate gates for the banker, consultant, teacher and doctor. Oh, and Dracula (nee Vlad the Impaler) was born here. We visited his house.

We were awakened at six in the morning to a hundred bells—this town doesn’t mess around. And it was good to have an early start as in one day we traveled the equivalent of Manhattan to Toronto to see the aforementioned painted monasteries at Voronet and Humorukui. Every surface was covered in colored cartoon depictions of the bible. Walls, ceilings, the altar and chairs. Everything a rainbow of biblical proportion except the nuns. They were in timeless black.

We opted not to endure back-to-back harrowing drives through the Carpathian mountain range and instead took a seven-hour, Soviet-style train the length of the country to return from Suceava to Bucharest. I can report that the train station has a mouth-watering pastry shop, free internet and the most disgusting bathrooms. And no place to sit.

Truly one feels the country on the cusp of change. There are new Bentleys and BMW’s in Bucharest and in the countryside horse-drawn wagons share the road with speedy cars and fast Wi-Fi.

Farm to table restaurants aren’t artisanal as they are in Brooklyn—in Romania they are still the norm. And farming is a tough sport, says our unexpected train companion who has two masters’ degrees from Columbia, works remotely for the UN in Nairobi and has repatriated to northern Romania to grow blueberries with her new husband. She described herself to us as a romantic fool. She also thanked us for visiting Romania. Who wouldn’t want to explore this enchanting and, at times, tortured country?