Saturday, July 30, 2011

Romania: On The Trail of Dracula - Biertan, Gypsies, Sibiu and Tilisca Village

As we left Sighisoara behind us, we ventured out into next to last full day in Romania. Our first stop on the road was another typically beautiful Romanian village, Biertan.

As a reminder, you can see more pictures from the Romanian portion of our trip by going to my Flickr Photostream HERE. I've updated the set to include supplemental pictures that go along with each post up to and including this one. Once there, just scroll down to the last 4-5 lines of the set to see the pictures related to this post.

If you've been following my posts about this trip, you get the idea on how these villages are organized: German style houses mostly, linear street layout, hilltop church with fortification. Biertan is no different. Perhaps a bit more beautiful than some, however. So, this time, I'm just going to let the pictures do the talking. Check out these shots from Biertan...

Inspired by our breakfast the day before, before leaving the village, we bought some wonderful local honey. With that we were on our way.

Aiming for the city of Sibiu, we did stop once on the way to see some Gypsies on the roadside selling copper pots and other such items. Gypsies - or Romani as they are often referred to - are an ethnic minority in Europe. The stereotype is nomadic families or groups of Gypsies wandering around Europe picking up work or selling things when and where they can. I cannot speak to whether the Gypsies we saw moved around, but I can say that when we saw them they were indeed either doing manual labor (such as helping build haystacks as we observed) or selling things (such as we saw on the roadside.) (Left: Gypsies sell their copper wares on the side of the road.)

Sibiu is a larger city, along the lines of Brasov. Vlad Dracula would have been here a few times and his son was killed and buried there. So, we checked it out. After parking and walking in the muggy afternoon down picturesque streets we settled in for a lunch overlooking the old city square. After, we walked through the old town some more and went half way across a pedestrian bridge that our guide Andrei said was the "liars bridge." He said that the superstition is that if you are a liar and you cross the bridge to the other side you will drop dead. None of us decided to test the theory, most especially Andrei who said that he had told enough lies in his life that he would not want to tempt fate. Turning to go back the way we came, we ventured over to the huge Cathedral that is the centerpiece of the old town.

Now, by this time we had been in a number of Romanian churches and normally seeing yet another one might be going "a church too far." But, actually, this was not the case here. We got a nice tour by a local youth whose school was doing a tour of duty as guides for the church interior. The cool tempature inside the church was most welcome as  this obviously well educated kid showed us some interesting frescoes, how the local big wigs (including the son of Vlad Dracula) were buried within the walls of the church - noting that the more wealthy the person was, the more ornate and detailed the sculpted coffin covers were. (Right: Main square in Sibiu.)

There must have been some money in that town back in the day because quite a few coffin covers had virtually life-like renderings of the deceased carved into them, just as the people now inside would have wanted to be remembered. Our youthful church guide also noted that the particularly fancy ones would have been created before the person died so they were sculpted exactly what the person wanted to represent him (and it was always a him) on the outside of his coffin - another sign of wealth.

As we looked around the ancient interior of this church, a thunderstorm broke out and doused the city for about a half hour. A real soaker. We passed the time under the church awning watching it all come down on the old roofs of the town. When it lifted, we ambled back across the old town and to our car, stopping for pick-me-up espresso from a vending machine along the way. Side note - look for these little vending machines to hit the USA sometime. They typcially kick out your choice of espresso, capuchino, cafe with milk or straight coffee. Sounds a bit sketchy I know, but I have to say we never had a bad espresso from one of these. The best ever? No, but not bad by any means. Oh, and cheap. (Left: Cathedral in Sibiu.)

Our timing back to the truck proved excellent as not more than two minutes after we were back in, another - larger - thunderstorm broke out. Andrei piloted the truck through the streets, but he might as well have been driving inside a washing machine. I'm not sure I've ever seen so much rain come down in such a short period of time.

Outdoor Museum
Cris-crossing the city in this downpour, Andrei set a course for our next destination of the day, an outdoor history museum as he put it. As the rain let up, we parked and got out. Essentially a huge, leafy park, this museum had real life examples of old Romanian homes, mills, windmills, recreational activities and more. We toured this sight for about and hour and then set off for our next guesthouse village for the night. (Right: Traditional windmills.)

Tilisca Village
Off the main freeway we wound our way through rough and uneven roads, through a couple villages to ultimately arrive in Tilisca Village - site of our guesthouse. Right in the middle of all the normal older buildings and homes, this place actually was quite modern. Situated adjacent to a roaring stream and looking out on a green forested hillside where ancient fort ruins poked through, we instantly knew we'd like this place. The house owners were home - a school teacher and a musician - and happily greeted us. After a rest, we ate a wonderful home cooked meal of lamb and, at last, tried the regional "hooch" called Palinka. This is a sort of distilled plumb wine that is clear in color and super powerful. Think ouzo or grappa. (Below: The streets of Tilisca Village at sundown.)

After dinner, Andrei and I took a walk around the village as the sun set and darkness took hold - casting what turned out to be a bluish wash over the town. We walked past very old churches, through alleyways, over cobbled streets, across small bridges. Mostly quiet, the streets did yield some activity when we got near one of the bars - naturally. And yep, the youth of Tilisca were out for a good time as they could be seen and heard living it up as we walked by. After we returned, Andrei and I sat up with the guesthouse owners in their courtyard, drank beer, and compared notes on the world as the stars sparkled overhead in between big cloud formations. Fun. But, it was getting late so after a while I decided to call it a night. Good thing too. I think Andrei could have stayed up all night talking - which of course is a complement. It had been a long day and I just couldn't.

Diane had already turned in and was asleep, and so with the sound of the lulling stream sounding continually outside and below our room...I quickly dropped off as well and slept the sleep of another great day in Romania. Knowing that tomorrow would be our last full day in the country, as I drifted off I relished our last big stop on our tour - hiking up to the real Vlad Dracula's castle.

(Below: Diane and Marc with guesthouse owner Elina in Tilisca.)

NOTE: Pictures in this post were taken by or are the property of Marc Osborn and are not permitted for any use without prior written permission of Marc Osborn.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Romania: On The Trail of Dracula - Viscri and Sighisoara

Pulling out of Simon Village, we hit the road with the well preserved medieval town of Sigishoara as our ultimate destination. To be sure, there would be plenty of driving on this day, but to me watching the countryside, the villages and the people go by out the window was endlessly fascinating.

I think the things we saw on the drive were typical of what we observed every day in Transylvania. To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, check out some pictures I took as we drove along below. Also note that I've updated my set of Romania pictures on my Flickry Photostream HERE to include pictures relevant to this post.

The other thing that was going on as we drove was the temperature was going up - way up. Sure, it'd been hot in Brasov but now I think it was getting into the mid 90s if not hotter. Eventually, the fairly populated countryside because quite rural again and eventually we exited the main freeway for a side road that would take us to the picturesque and off-the-beaten path village called Viscri.

Viscri is one of those places that is consistently cited by travel books as a wonderful chance to see how typical Romanian village life is today and was in the past. However, it's also a place that not many tourists go because a) it is so off the beaten path, and b) the "beaten path" is a REALLY rough road. But, as Andrei our guide says, good things are worth the effort. (Below: Viscri home, Viscri stork nest.)

So we made the effort. Pulling into the village after a jostling ride, the first thing you see is a row of houses on each side of the dirt main street. These German-style houses are bathed in bright colors and seem to connect together to form an almost sold wall going all the way through the village as it rises up the hill.

We got out into the heat and walked up the hill, noticing both some guys sitting outside in the shade at the local (and only?) bar in town. We also spied a stork in her nest atop one of the house's chimneys. Cute. Turning to the right and into some shade, we made our way up to the town's primary visitors site - the fortified church.

Back in history, these villages would always have a church, but they typically also fortified it so it was a fortress as well. Often these were placed on the highest hill in the village boundary. This would give people a place retreat to if an ill-intending army or bad guys showed up. From there, the town could either wait out the trouble or fend of the interlopers from their positions.

We walked around the complex, got up into the rafters and defense positions, toured the church and generally looked around. I also bought a pair of home made wool socks from the woman in charge of the gate. Kinda funny doing that when it's 100 degrees outside, but I figured that come next winter I'd appreciate them. Anyway, this was an intriguing look at how typical villages were structured and how they organized themselves. We were glad to have stopped. But, we were getting hungry so off we went - hitting a roadside diner (another score for Andrei!) before heading directly to our next and final stop of the day. (Left: Viscri fortified church.)

Located in the heart of Transylvania, Sighisoara (pronounced sig-y-shore-ah) is one of the best preserved hilltop medieval towns in all of Europe and the only one like it in Eastern Europe still inhabited. It is also the birthplace of, you guessed it, Vlad Dracula.

Winding our way up the hill toward the old town center in our vehicle, we eventually broached the old city walls and emerged into a wonderfully colorful town square. Diane and I got out and found some shade as Andrei squared off with the hotel staff over whether or not he could park our truck across the very narrow street from the hotel. Andrei won out. (Left: Medieval tower in Sighisoara.) 

Our plan from here was to see the sights first and then dodge the heat with some shade, a beer or two and then some rest in the late afternoon. The first thing was saw was the massive clock/defensive tower in the middle of the old town. It's impressive from the outside, but then also we climbed up inside and emerged at the top where there was a nice breezy balcony to survey the entire region.

Back on the ground, we next stopped at the birthplace of Vlad Dracula. Vlad's father, Vlad Dracul, lived in this town in an house right on the square. "Dracul" is a name he was given after he joined "the order of the Dragon" earlier in his life. Upon the birth of his son, Vlad, he gave him the name "Dracula" as in, from Dracul or Dracul's child. And that's how the name "Dracula" came into being. Today, the house is actually a restaurant on the ground floor, and yes, they do play up the fictional Dracula angle a bit. But, you can also see the order of the Dragon symbol over the doorway too and there is a plaque noting the building as the home of Vlad Dracul and the birthplace of Dracula. Across town in a small square, there is also a bust of Vlad Dracula.

Next, we  hit the torture museum, and why not? About this time we were overheating and getting tired so we headed for a shady side street and sat down to have beer. Wiling away a good hour there, we then adjourned to our hotel - situated right on the main town square - where we checked in and rested up. (Right: Building where Vlad Dracula was born.)

As it turned out, there was a film festival happening in Sighisoara that evening. Initially we thought that this would be a pain because it was taking place right in the town square...right in front of our hotel. But, as it turned out it was fine. We actually ended up sitting in the audience, enjoying the finally cool weather and watching some of the festivities and the film - in this case a recently-produced historical drama about the Ceausescu days. (Below: Colorful scenes around Sighisoara.)

Before that, however, we took a walk up to the top of the fortified hill for a view and a look at the church up there. While still hot, this was a nice way to see more of the back streets of the town. We ate dinner back near our hotel in a delightful courtyard restaurant, and then strolled the streets some more before sitting down to watch some of the movie.

Thus ended a very busy, but very rewarding day. With no problem sleeping whatsoever, we awoke ready for a new day. I actually got up a bit early and walked the streets of town to see it in the morning sun. Pretty.

After a nice breakfast at the hotel, we saddled up and headed out for the day with the town of Sibui as the main point for us to visit.

NOTE: All pictures in this post were taken by Marc Osborn and are not authorized for use without prior written permission.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Romania: On The Trail of Dracula - Bran Castle, Brasov and a Hike

Waking up after a restful night in Simon village, we sat down to a spectacular Romanian breakfast of village-produced sheep cheese, ham, eggs, honey, fresh baked bread and hot delicious coffee. Seriously, check it out in the picture here...

All of this was literally and figuratively "setting the table" for our day - a visit to nearby Bran Castle and then touring the town of Brasov. Satisfied with our morning feast, we took off with Andrei in our trusty vehicle for the short ride to Bran.

Bran Castle
OK, the first thing to know about Bran Castle, is that it certainly looks like a castle that the real or fictional Dracula could have lived in. Craggy hilltop location? Check. Spooky towers and spires? Check. Birds (or are they bats?) circling around? Check. Narrow pathways leading up through a dark forest to get there? Check. (Below: Bran Castle.)

But then the second thing to know about the castle is that it was neither the inspiration for Bram Stoker's fictional Castle Dracula nor the residence or property of the real Vlad Dracula - although the later probably did set foot there at some point.

However, exactly none of that has deterred the good people of  Bran from hyping up Bran Castle as the place to get the "Dracula experience." Why? Did I mention how much the castle looks like it could be Dracula's? And indeed, at the base of the hill that the structure resides atop, there are all kinds of Dracula inspired items in an open air market -  mostly junky stuff. (Right: Sign at the Bran Castle market.)

But if you strip away all of that business, there is one more thing to know about Bran Castle. And that is that it is a great example of what castles in this region looked like and were used for. With a mindset of learning more about this rather than some fictional Dracula thing, we enjoyed our visit to Bran Castle. Climbing stairs, ducking through narrow passageways, resting on balconies overlooking the inner courtyard and seeing the various rooms - all with great views of the valley - the castle proved to be fun. Also, a number of rooms featured information about who really did live in the castle, when and why. One room in particular addressed Dracula - the real one - and also the very real superstitions of rural Transylvania such as vampires, living dead, ghosts and others.

When we were finished looking around, we descended from the hill and actually did check out the open air market. Yes, we did pick up a few funny Dracula items, but amongst the schlocky stuff there were a few stalls selling legitimate hand-made local items. In particular we found the table cloths to be pretty. After checking out the various options and comparison shopping the stalls, we settled on a table cloth we liked best featuring brilliant aqua and dark blue designs. Andrei interpreted for us and verified that the table cloth was indeed hand made in the local area, and with that we happily purchased it.

Our next destination this day was the beautiful city of Brasov. Bigger than any other town we visited other than Bucharest, Brasov features a wonderfully preserved medieval town center with a great wide plaza in the middle. The reason for visiting here was simply to take in the sights...and eat some good food. (Below: Main square in Brasov.)

However, our first stop was the Gothic Cathedral that sits near the town center. Inside, we learned a few things that we didn't know. For example, back in the old days the rows of side pews along the edges of the massive hall each were property of a local guilds - builders, millers, blacksmiths, etc. And in fact, you can see the guild designs on the respective pews. Andrei said that guilds paid money to the church for the pews and that the more they paid, the better position they'd have in the church...and by implication respect in the community. They also apparently were in charge of "policing" their section of the church during services and providing staff for whatever functions happened in their section during the service.

The next thing we learned, or more accurately first saw, was that there were many middle eastern carpets hanging on the walls. This seemed odd for a Christian Cathedral. But, it made sense when Andrei told us that these were gifts from Ottoman traders over the centuries. Sure enough, Romania sits right on the east-west trade route used to transport goods from the east into Europe. Apparently to keep things on the up-and-up, the Ottoman traders would gift these very expensive and beautiful carpets to the local nobility and church.

And then the third thing we learned was that during the 1989 revolution, there was fighting in the streets of Brasov as various factions tried to either retain power or take it over. At one point, a group of revolutionaries holed up in the church, but the local military shot into the the church anyway. Today, you can see the bullet holes in the interior of the Cathedral. (Right: Cathedral in Brasov.)

Next, we walked the short distance to the city's main square. By this time, it was getting to be after 12 noon, so we thought the best thing to do was get a bite to eat at one of the restaurants bordering the square. Featuring umbrellas with the tag line "Brasov, Probably The Best City In The World," we alighted at a patio table at one of Andrei's now reliable selections. Good choice. Again, spectacular food. Before we ordered, however, Andrei said that all he would be getting is soup "and the donuts." Donuts? We though, "yeah right. Too much on a hot day and couldn't be that good." We were wrong. Seeing what he had ordered, Diane and I quickly requested our own order. Now, these are not donuts like what you'd get at Top Pot or Dunkin' Donuts. No. These were more like big fried bread cannon balls slathered in a sweet icing and jam, topped with a donut hole and powdered sugar. Huge, delicious and...possibly...the best thing we ate the entire trip.

Fueled up on pork, beer and donuts (yes!) we set out to see the rest of the town.

Once we were done walking the streets and seeing the sights, we loaded back up in our truck and made our way back to Simon village to take a hike. We did this by driving the entire length of Simon up to where the road ends, parking and then proceeding on into the forrest on a trail. Following along a delightful flowing stream, our hike took us gradually up through the lush green forrests. Along the way we had views of serene medows, small water falls, gorgeous trees and, ultimately, a fabulous view looking up at a poriton of the Carpathian mountains. After the hot afternoon in Brasov, the entire hike was a welcome departure.

Here are a few pictures from our hike...

One intereting thing we learned along the way was about sheep poop. Well, actually more about dogs. Here's one point, Andrei looked down on our path and said, "I don't like what I see here." I asked him what he meant and he said that there was sheep poop on the trail, and that meant that there could be a sheep heard nearby. And where there is a sheep heard there are sheep hearding dogs. These dogs, according to Andrei, are fine if the Shepard is around,  but if he's not then they are extremely aggressive. He advised is to each pick up a sturdy walking stick and keep it with us as we hiked. We quickly complied. In the end, we never saw any sheep and certainly no dogs. But, the story also brought to light how pervasive sheparding is in Romania and how seriously they take it.

Returing to our guest house after 7 p.m. we could officially say we'd had both a very busy but extremely fun day in Romania. We settled in for another great meal from Magdalena. I attempted to stay up late enough to see the stars as there would be no light polution of cloud cover to obscure them, but I was too tierd. Both of us hit the sack and rested well.

The next morning it was time to say goodbye to our host family and Simon village as we made our way to our next desinations - Viscri Village and the town of Sighisoara.

NOTE: All pictures in this post taken by me, Marc Osborn. Pictures are not authorized for any use without written permission from me.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Romania: On The Trail of Dracula - Peles Castle, Sinaia and Simon Village

Having left the Princely Court of Vlad Dracula in Targoviste, we made our way through the Romanian countryside up into the mountains for a visit to - what turned out to be - one of the most interesting castles we've ever been to, Peles Castle. I have added pictures associated with this post to my overall set on Romaina on my Flickr Photostream HERE.

Winding our way up the Carpathian foothills hills to a summit, we passed through a number of typical Romanian villages and increasingly glimpsed views of the beautiful peaks on our way to the small mountain pass town of Sinaia. There are other things to do in Sinaia than see the castle, and indeed it's a popular destination in the summer for hiking and biking and in the winter for skiing. The day we arrived, the town was full of people enjoying the sun. In the distance up on the peaks, you could see a large gondola ferrying people up to the meadows and mountain tops for summertime hiking and sight seeking.

We made a bee-line to a nice old hotel for a lunch on the balcony overlooking the city park. We had delicious soup, home made bread and some leafy salad. Once done there, we drove up some more and to the site of Peles Castle, tucked away in a very large wooded park. (Below: Peles Castle.)

Peles (pronounced pell-esh) Castle is not very old in the context of European history, as it was built only just more than 100 years ago. However, it's significant because it was the residence of the very first king of a unified and independent Romania under the monarch King Carol I. Prior to that, "Romania" was actually just a series of principalities (Wallachia, Transylvania, etc.) ruled by their respective princes and loosely bound to the Hungarian King and/or the Church. As a side note, it's interesting that King Carol I was a close relative to the Kaiser of Germany. All these European monarchs were (and are) related. For example, a 110 years ago the Czar of Russia, King of England and Kaiser of Germany were are cousins. And King Carol I was part of that big family tree too.
At any rate, the castle is also significant because, well, it's very pretty from the outside and quite impressive inside. No Dracula angle here, just a visually pleasing castle.

Touring the grounds and the interior was delightful. The diversity of rooms, styles, art and color themes wowed us. Certainly there are bigger and even flashier castles in Europe (Versailles for example), but even up against those bigger and better known palaces Peles really stands out. Massive wood carved statues, banisters and spiral staircases; beautiful Moroccan style rooms; glitzy Venetian mirrors and chandeliers; impressive displays of armor; secret passageways and grand hallways; opulently decked out apartments; sweeping staircases; spiky turrets; cozy library and study rooms - all these and more make Peles one of the most diverse and interesting royal residences we've toured.

After our enjoyable tour inside, we walked the garden-rich grounds outside for a view of the castle from close up and afar. All and all, a very nice visit and a pleasant surprise.

And then we were off - on the road down from the pass and toward the town of Bran where we would stay in a guest house in a nearby village called Simon (pronounced she-mon).

We blew through the main part of Bran on our way in and only got a glimpse of the famed castle there. But, knowing we'd see it the next day we didn't care too much. Onward we went a couple miles until turning off down a road that soon led to Simon. Many villages in Romania are linear - as in, they are not clustered around a central plaza. Rather, most villages are one house or building deep along a road on both sides. Most structures are homes and then of course your typical other buildings like a school, post office, general store, bar, etc. interspersed here and there. Simon is like that - linear. (Left: The guest house we stayed in and our vehicle.)

About a quarter of the way through the village we stopped at the guest house where we would stay. Basically, a guest house is what we would call here in the states a bed & breakfast...except you get dinner too. The owners of this guest house were a couple - Magdalena, who is the village doctor, her husband who is a teacher/administrator at the local high school and their teenage son.

On this day, the father and son were out in the yard cutting down the tall grass with scythes. These are long sticks with a sharp, curved blade at the end that are swung with the blade right at ground level to cut the grass. I tried this. Not as easy as it looks. Anyway, they were cutting the grass to create hay for use by their neighbors. Everybody in Simon seemed to be doing this as we say it everywhere. (See picture above of neighbors piling up cut grass for hay on a horse cart.)

Our original plan for our tour called for us to take a 2-3 hour hike to end the day after arriving in Simon, but since it was already 5 p.m. we postponed until the next day. Too tired.

We did, however, decide to take a nice, leisurely walk along the much of the length of the village. We visited some neighbors as they piled up hay onto a horse cart, observed local farm animals and ultimately stooped at the Magazin Mixt shop (like a 7-11) to get some icy cold Romanian beer that we drank while taking in the view from the yard associated with the shop. (Right: View from our walk through Simon village, Left: view as we drank beer in the garden next to the convenience store in Simon.)

Strolling back, we ended our day with a wonderful meal made by Magdalena featuring a hot polenta and cheese appetiser dish, pork, salad, potatoes, locally made wine and desert. Wonderful.

When planning this trip, I asked the tour company if they could dial back the price a little, and the option given was to stay a few nights in guest houses instead of hotels. I wasn't sure what that would get us, but now that we experienced it first had, I am a big fan. In fact, it would have been great to stay more nights in village guest houses. An excellent way to meet people, see "the real" country and eat some seriously good food. (Below left: Church on main road through Simon village.)

Another interesting thing we learned about guest houses was that following the 1989 revolution, there were a lot of people out of work - particularly in the rural areas. The new government felt that tourism could be and would be a major component of the new Romanian economy and incentivize rural families to build guest houses and learn the basics of the "hospitality" industry. Our guide Andrei actually got involved with that program back in the 1990s and that's how he initially got into the tourism industry. However, as Andrei is quick to point out, the promise of flocks of Romanian, German, British, Russian, French, Dutch and even American tourists flooding the picturesque Romanian countryside to spend their money on accommodations, food and drink has not materialized. Sure, some come. But not as many as hoped. As a result, villages like Simon - so beautiful and well located - are full of nice guest houses with virtually not guests during tourist season.
Our thought was that Romania ought to invest in getting "adventure traveler" to their country. With so many peaks to hike and climb, rivers to raft, parks to mountain bike in and so forth, it seems a natural. We'll see. Anyway, it was kind of nice to have Simon to ourselves as tourists.

Bedding down after our late dinner, we looked forward to the next day's adventures - seeing the famed Bran Castle and visiting the beautiful town of Brasov. Satisfied that we'd had a great day, we quickly drifted off with only the occasional farm sounds in the inky darkness breaking the rural silence. (Left: view from the main road of Simon village.)

NOTE: All pictures in this post were taken by Marc Osborn and are not authorized for any use without written permission.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Romania: On The Trail of Dracula - Targoviste

Picking up from the first post about our trip to Romania and Italy, our next destination in Romania was Targoviste. You can see the growing set of pictures from our trip on my Flickr Photostream set located HERE. As of this post I've updated it to include Targoviste. Check there for a more diverse selection that  you see in the post below.

Driving in from Snagov was about a two hour drive, interrupted by that great lunch I described in the last post. When we got to Targoviste (pronounced tar-go-vish-tey), it was pretty clear that our guide Andrei had not been there in a while because, well, we got lost.

We knew he'd eventually find our hotel, but we spent quite a while doing so. We were very close a number of times. In fact, on the first try we were only a block away - and we thought we were only a block away - but the street that would get us to where we needed to go was closed off for "private use only." This sent Andrei into an annoyed soliloquy about the sloppiness and corruption of Romanian police and civic officials. His assertion was that the street was blocked off from public use simply because a local official probably lived down the street and did not want traffic on it or wanted to charge a fee to use it.

(Above: Main square in Targoviste.) This sent us looking for another way to get to where we needed to go. Ultimately we found our way, and when we did we were pleasantly surprised. Upon initial inspection as we drove in, Targoviste seemed a bit more "hard" that Bucharest and I was wondering what our accommodations would be like. Well, we needn't have worried because we ended up at a very modern, really nice hotel.

Anyway, why Targoviste? Well, our man Vlad governed the principality of Wallachia, dealt with Transylvania and generally presided at his residence here - The Princely Court of Targoviste. So, we wanted to see where Vlad the Impaler ruled from.

After unpacking at the hotel, we took a walk across town to see if we could find the Princely Court. Strolling through the town's central park to avoid the very hot weather, we saw kids at play, a mini-midway with games, packs of old men playing chess, a beautiful green-topped church, a few dogs running around (more on that later) and some nice old homes.

Eventually we found the Princely Court. Unfortunately, it was not open on Monday. So, no dice for us that afternoon. We did get some glimpses of the tower and scouted out a couple places for dinner, however. In particular, Andrei thought this one place nearby would be good...simply based on his review of the menu and a look around the place. While I had no opinion on the menu, I wondered if this open courtyard style restaurant with some pretty loud music coming from the speakers really was the answer.
(Right: Church in Targoviste.) 
We walked back to the hotel for a rest and reconvened in the evening for a walk and dinner. Not having discovered any other options for where to eat, we went with Andrei's gut instincts and walked back over to the place near the Princely Court. Good call. The music was not loud, the grassy courtyard was lit up and we selected a table with a very nice view of the now very easy-to-see tower inside the Court complex. But the big deal here was the food. Wow. We ordered the "Dracula Stew," a huge plate with two types of Peasant Potatoes, carrot salad, Gorgonzola pork, green salad, Romanian beer, Romanian wine and a chicken dish. Incredible savory goodness.
(Left: View from our table at the restaurant.)

Part of our high rating for this place was the expectation game as the food easily exceeded the expectations. Diane's "Dracula Stew" was not really a stew, but more like chunks of lamb in a thick, rich, dark red/brown sauce. My Gorgonzola pork delivered nicely and those potatoes were a huge hit. Awesome all around. The other thing that made this a smash hit dinner was that the entire meal for three people cost us the equivalent of $40. That's it. Welcome to Romania.

After the meal, I told Andrei that he was "two for two" on his restaurant recommendations and that we'd go wherever he thought was good. And with that, we reversed course and walked back in the warm evening to the hotel for the night.

The next morning we packed up and drove over to the Princely Court for our walk through. As we exited the hotel, there was a large crowd of local people gathered in the parking lot. Andrei explained that they were there to apply for and interview for a few jobs that were on offer from the hotel. That so many people would turn out for just a few jobs underscored the unemployment problem in the town he said. (Right: Princely Court in Targoviste.) 

On site at the Princely Court, there were basically four elements to see: 1) the tower that Vlad Dracula built for defense and observation of the countryside, 2) the court complex itself, 3) the church and then 4) a display of very early books published in the area. We toured each. The books were interesting. Having been around for 500-some years, these thick volumes looked pretty good. Certainly if you knew the language you could read them today. The ruins of the court itself were somewhat interesting, but the were greatly reduced over the centries, so while you could tell there was a faily large complex of buildings here it was a bit tricky to visualize how it was laid out - at least looking at it from ground level.

The highlights were the tower and the church. The church offered another look at the fresco style interior that was the norm in the time of Vlad and before. In fact, we were lucky enough to get a tour of the building by the on-site historian and the on-site restoration expert. While one explained about the building, the other told us how he was restoring the frescoes. (Left: Church at Court complex, Right: Frescoes inside the church.)
Not much later, we climbed up the tower. Once on top, you could easily see why Vlad had it built. Delivering a dominating view of the area, Dracula's forces could easily see what was coming from any direction. From this vantage point, you could now easily see the entire lay of the Princely Court. Much clearer as to who the place was laid out. (Left: Tower at Princely Court built by Vlad Dracula.)

As we gazed down from this perch, we imagined what the place might have been like when Vlad the Impaler strode the halls of these buildings as he ruled from this site. What maniacal plans were hatched, what court intrigues unfolded, who was in favor, who was out, how many people met their end here or nearby? So many things to consider. Fascinating. (Below: View from tower.)

Descending from the tower, we made our way back across the grounds and to our vehicle where we took off for our next destination - the town of Sinaia and Peles Castle.

NOTE: All pictures in this post taken by Marc Osborn. Any use is not permitted without prior written permission from Marc Osborn.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Photo Set to Go With My First Romania Post

I just posted as set of pictures I took in Bucharest and Snagov on my Flickr Photostream.

You can see the set by clicking HERE.

I'll be posting more pictures from Romania and Italy over the summer, so check back on my Photostream or this blog to see new ones.

Romania: On The Trail of Dracula - Bucharest and Snagov

This year, Diane and I took a spectacular trip to Europe - splitting our time between two countries. One we'd been to before, Italy, and the other was a place most of us have heard about but most have never been to...Romania.

More specifically, the part of Romania that most everybody has heard of is Transylvania - mainly because of the Count Dracula and, more recently, vampire stories that are so pervasive in entertainment.

To be sure the lure of Dracula was interesting to us, but the primary draw for us was not Count Dracula of vampire fame because, well, he never existed. Rather, we were interested in the history of the real man - Vlad Dracula, also known as Vlad Tepes (which translates in Romanian to "Vlad the Impaler).

Indeed, based on our knowledge of the fictitious Dracula and the Transylvania he inhabited, both Diane and I read the biography of Vlad Dracula, prince of neighboring Walachia in the 1400s and no stranger to Transylvania either. And through reading about him and his often gruesome exploits (he didn't earn the nickname Tepes for nothing) we also learned about Romanian history. We also learned that so bloody were Vlad's methods of ruling that he was used by author Bram Stoker as inspiration as he built his fictional Dracula vampire character for his book. (Left: Vlad Dracula)

Given that we had a great time in another eastern European country a few years ago, Poland, we thought it might be time to check out another east Europe country. And yes, of course, there is that appeal that Transylvania has given all the movies and books written about vampires. Hell, it's cool to have gone to Transylvania and to be able to say so. It's proving to get a reaction every time I say it.

With all that as set up, with this post I'm starting a series of reports on our trip - including both Romania and Italy. For the Romania portion, the places we saw were more or less both important to overall Romanian history and the history of Vlad Tepes. Hopefully by reading you'll get a sense of what these locations were like and why they are important. Along the way, I'll drop some knowledge about Vlad, as well as food, beverage and such.

To begin the series, I'll start with...

Bucharest and Snagov
We flew into the capital of Romania from London via New York and starting in Seattle...all in one day. Literally, a whole day of travel. But, luckily we arrived in the late afternoon. So, all we had to do was stay awake to clean up and eat...and then it was bed time no matter how you looked at it.

We stayed at the nice and well located Rembrandt Hotel in the older district of Bucharest. This locale offered us easy walking access to a load of restaurants and centered us among buildings that show why Bucharest used to be called "the Paris of the east." We ended up going to dinner at a very good place nearby called Caru cu Bere. Featuring traditional Romania dishes and their own delicious beer all in a baroque setting, this meal really hit the spot. After that we had enough energy to take a walk the hip and happening streets nearby where there were narrow street after narrow street chalk full of bars and restaurants - each with outdoor seating. Quite the scene. Lets just say the 20/30 somethings of Bucharest were out to see and be seen. (Right: Out on the town, Bucharest)

We slept hard that night, but were in surprisingly good shape the next morning. Following a delightful breakfast in the hotel overlooking the pedestrian byway, we met up with our guide for the trip. We decided that driving around Romania ourselves would probably not be a great idea given the road conditions and what we'd heard about Romanian drivers. In hind sight we probably could have done it ourselves, but having now used the PAN Travel agency in Romania to plan things out, drive us and guide us we wouldn't have done it any different anyway. And, we arranged it so it was a private tour from just we two.

After breakfast we met up with our unstoppable guide, Andrei. Upon meeting him, we instantly knew we were in for a good time as Andrei has a positive attitude, a good sense of humor and a sense of adventure.

Andrei showed us the "highlights" of Bucharest in a driving tour in the first part of the morning, including the massive Palace of Parliament, universities, opera, traditional neighborhoods and the key locations where the revolution against the communist government happened in 1989. (Left: Palace of Parliament in Bucharest - one of, if not the, largest buildings in the world.)

The only Vlad Dracula angle in Bucharest is that he is fabled to have named the city and founded it as the capital of his domain. More on that on our second visit to Bucharest at the end of our Romania tour.

A more clear link to Vlad, however, was at our second stop of the day - Snagov. Located outside the city on an island in a pleasant lake, the Snagov Monastery is the place where it is strongly believed that Vlad Dracula is buried. So we had to visit.

To get there you have to travel outside of Bucharest into the countryside, through a village and down to the water's edge of the lake in which the island monastery is located. As we rambled toward the destination, we realized that if we didn't have a guide who knew where he was going we'd never have found the place because there were no signs at any time. But, eventually, we got to a parking spot on a village road right by the lake. Exiting the truck and into the hot, hot Romanian summer, we walked the bridge from the land over to the island and onto the grassy, tree-lined way that leads up to the monastery.

Entering the chapel, we marveled at the all-mosaic interior. Unfortunately, the monks would not let us take pictures. Suffice it to say that while small, the church was impressive. And sure enough, on the floor near the later was a picture of Vlad Dracula with a lit candle standing directly over what looked to be a grave marker. So, who knows...we may have (probably did) see "the Impaler's" last resting place. (Right: Snagov monastery, burial place of Vlad Dracula.)

After a leisurely stroll around the flowery grounds, we returned across the bridge and to our vehicle - satisfied that we'd seen our first real Dracula site. And of course learned a bit about the religious history of the area.

With that, we hit the road for our next destination. Along the way, we decided to try a roadside diner for lunch and boy were we glad we did. A true highlight for here, on the side of the road was a restaurant serving DELICIOUS Romania fare. For example, our lunch consisted of a rich soup, thick bread and a dish called sarmale - meat, rice, onions and spices wrapped in grape leaves (or sometimes cabbage leaves). Throw in some nice polenta on the side and we're talking a really good lunch. And beer of course. Romania has some great beer. Ursus and Ciuc.

Filled up and happy, we made our way to Targoviste - a town where Vlad ran his principality from his "princely court."

Check back to the blog later for the next installment of the series!

NOTE: All pictures in this post except the portrait of Vlad are taken by me, Marc Osborn, and are not authorized for use without written permission from me.