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What did I expect to find in Romania?

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Scris de Sara Maypole Duminică, 10 Iunie 2012 17:49

sara_cu_tricoul_de_voluntar_copyI picked the tour simply because Iʼd never been there and the title, Treasures of Romania: Enchanting Castles and Painted Monasteries, appealed to my imagination. Iʼve traveled a lot, but the only time Iʼd been to countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain was on a trip to the Czech Republic and East Germany. The depressing memories of concrete block apartments and cities and towns obviously still trying to recover from communist oppression was not encouraging, but I chose to concentrate on the promise of castles and monasteries. Our first day in Bucharest was not entirely reassuring. The area was in the midst of a drought and Herastrau Park, where our hotel was located, was a dull brown. Everything appeared dry and dusty and it was difficult to understand how the city acquired the title, Paris of the East. The first stop was The Peopleʼs Palace. We were told that Ceausescu tore down many neighborhood in order to build it. We spent three hours viewing this monument to his megalomania. I was sick at heart when we left, but have to admit it gave me an understanding of the former dictator that wouldnʼt have been possible simply by reading about his regime. Our experience of the rest of the city was somewhat of a roller coaster ride. Handsome churches and other buildings close to torn up streets and buildings. The whole experience was summed up by a white weddinggown hung up for sale outside a shop whose second floor was open to the sky.
Next we traveled by bus to to Brasov in Transylvania. Here was what I had been waiting for: picturesque Saxon architecture, in pastel colors, and a fine old square (Piata Sfatului) where I could have spent days just looking at the buildings and peoplewatching.
We visited the "Black Church", the biggest Gothic edifice between Vienna and Istanbul and were amazed by the turkish carpets, hundreds of years old, that were hung throughout by traders grateful for a safe return from buying trips to Istanbul. Best of all we were able to give our guide the slip and wander around to make our own discoveries. For me, one of the most moving experiences was the discovery of a small park where those killed in the last uprising in 1989 are buried, many with pictures on their monuments and almost all so young.
The next day we visited Bran Castle. Transylvania is most Americanʼs only association with Romania and the majority donʼt know that it is in Romania. We all had fun there and took many pictures baring our teeth. I enjoyed the Gothic turrets and sharp sloping roofs, but even more wandering through the rooms once occupied by the Romanian royal family. And we learned about the real Vlad Tepes. At the bottom of the hill the locals were understandably keen to cash in on American foolishness with menacing tshirts, Dracula figurines and even little wooden cages incarcerating live bats. How I wished I could take one of those home!
We also visited the beautiful Peles Castle, the former summer retreat of the royal family in Sinaia. The surrounding summer homes and landscape reminded me somewhat of Estes Park and the castle looks hardly touched by decades of communism.  On our way north we passed through Seckler Land (Szekelyfold0 and I was totally overwhelmed by the beauty of the villages and the carved wooden gates and exterior decoration everywhere. Apparently the more important you are, the bigger and more beautiful the gate. The houses were quite close together each with its own garden plot and in the background we could see men scything hay which we later encountered loaded on horse drawn wagons. Compared to our immense agricultural business it was heart-warming to see things on a more human scale. It must be a tough life for small land owners, but nature seems to exist in harmony with farming methods that have more in common with the 18th than the 21st century.
We arrived in Gura Humorului by way of the amazing Bicaz Gorge which we hiked through for a short time. And it was here that we encountered several horse-drawn wagons loaded with hay. The slope down was steep and I was glad not to be the one in charge of the brake. At a scenic stop we encountered children selling beautifully decorated Easter eggs one of which is now in my collection.
The next day was devoted entirely to the painted monasteries some of which are part of the United Nations World Heritage: Voronet, Moldavita, Humor, Sucevita. This was one of the primary reasons for my choosing to come to Romania and I was not disappointed. These buildings dating from the 15th century are covered inside and out with magnificent frescoes depicting various Biblical stories and saints which were used as educational purposes as well as worship resources. Iʼve studied Eastern Orthodoxy for years (and paint icons) so this was very significant for me both as religious art and for what was being depicted. Some of it I could quickly decipher like the Last Judgment which fills the entire west wall at Voronet and the Tree of Jesse which is depicted on the middle of the south wall. I took many, many pictures. Just being there was like attending a worship service. I will always remember these holy places.
The next day was Sunday and I was awakened by a wonderful chorus of roosters crowing rounded out by church bells ringing. In some ways this best summed up my experience of Romania. It was a fine send off to a very long bus ride to Cluj. This large city, clearly showing its communist years, remains somewhat of a grey blur in my memory, notable only because we spotted our first Roma. Our guide issued a stern warning to us to stay well clear of them as "they can talk you out of your clothes". We were entertained at an arranged dinner by a trio of men on string instruments and were excited to hear them until we were told not to expect any gypsy music as, "They only play what they think you want to hear." Imagine our disappointment when they started off with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"!
There was a wonderful all day excursion to Rimetea, a historic village awarded the Europa Nostra Medal for restoration in 1999. It was another enthralling day. We saw women doing washing in the communal pool, a herder with his cow and beautifully decorated homes. There are groups working with the villagers to upgrade and repair their homes and to install indoor plumbing so they can attract tourists with Bed and Breakfast. I would make a reservation in a minute! The town is beautifully situated and more than half of the townʼs 315 Saxon homesteads have been restored. What a wonderful venture for a unique location.
The last few days were spent in Sibiu and Sighisoara. Both cities were full of architectural wonders and I could sit in Sibiuʼs main plaza with a glass of wine forever just watching. Our first night in a hotel I looked out my window directly into one of the "eyes", curiously shaped windows with ridges like eyelids known as ochiuru ale orasului. Very soon I had taken pictures of every one I came across. We ate very well in Sibiu and sat in the Main Plaza after sunset watching the locals. I bought some hand crafts including a beautiful embroidered shirt and I managed to cross over the "Liarʼs Bridge" with no challenge.
Our last stop was Sighisoara, another picturesque city. On the way we stopped briefly in Biertan to visit the fortified Saxon church. It is especially notable vor a very small house on the church grounds where couples seeking a divorce had to spend two weeks. With only one small bed, one table, one chair and one set of cutlery most managed to reconcile. Sighisoara is known for the Vlad Dracul House, but we were only able to see it from a distance as Gerard Depardreau was filming on location (no word on whether or not it was a movie about the life of Vlad!) This is written as I prepare to return to Romania where I will be volunteering for twoweeks in an orphanage and I hope to learn much more about village life and the people who live there. When people ask me about Romania I respond that it was like someone opened a door and I went through it and found myself in Europe 80 years. It was an incredible gift and growing experience and I am looking forward to returning.

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