Wednesday, 2 June 2010

In search of the undead

Written 1st June

With the mountains of Transylvania in sight, we headed north. 

But not before ensuring our fierce guard bears were suitably armed against unwanted night time visitors.  Well you can't be too careful... ;)

First stop, Sinaia, site of King Carol I's holiday palace, Peles,

a fairytale confection of dreaming spires, fresco'd courtyards and ornate wooden panelling, set in an atmospheric pine forest at the foot of the Bucegi mountains.

Having been an annex of the Ottoman Empire for 300-odd years, the Wallachia and Moldovia states were united under in 1859 and the national state of Romania came into existance in 1862.  The first leader was forced to abdicate and a new monarchy was established  by importing Prince Karl of Hohenzollern from Prussia who embraced his role and chosen new name - Carol?? - with gusto

and set about building himself a fabulous palace for himself and his queen

(with a further 'holiday cottage', Pelisor, in the grounds for his nephew and heir Ferdinand and his wife Marie) before the war of independence in 1877-78 finally liberated Romania from Ottoman rule.  

It does seem to be the way of things after the Ottomans: Newly independent from the yoke of an unwelcome occupying power or wanting to be? want a monarchy to celebrate but not got one?  Take your pick of one of ours!  We have royals of germanic descent to spare!... First a bavarian in Greece, then a prussian here.  Just think, when the americans finally leave, Iraq could have Harry or Beatrice... ;)

Sadly neither the main Palace nor the 'Cottage' were open but surprisingly we could get right to the terrace for a good peer round and jolly fine it was too.

Back down the hill, past the monastery - couldn't summon up the necessary enthusiasm for a monastery visit - and back on the road to Brasov, Romania's tourist central, up in the Carparthian Mountains.

Despite this moniker and the now expected urban sprawl of hypermarkets and diy sheds, central Brasov is actually quite nice.  

It has a fine café-lined central square,

with mediaeval town hall (tourist office sadly closed due to strikes yesterday but honestly, when I went in this morning, it might as well have still been on strike for the one leaflet and two grunted syllables I got...),

the largest gothic church between Vienna and Istambul (called 'the Black Church' after a fire destroyed much of the town in 16-something and left it smoke blackened but recently over-zealously cleaned so it is more 'the Faded Grey Church'...),

a town gate, some towers and a fortress we didn't find,

typical streets,

some grand public administration buildings

and, somewhat incongrously, a lit up Hollywood-style sign, high on the slopes of the town's pet mountain, Tampa.

We also found the 14th century St Nicolas church - properly fairytale with its disney spires and full on creeeeakbang heavy door. 

The interior of the church is covered with paintings so, in near compliance with  EU regulations, 'smokers' are relegated to a dingy hut outside. 

We also couldn't help but wonder about the true purpose of this wooden cross which we first saw leaning up against the wall, just inside the door.  The laminate card with the name of the deceased had sunday's date on it so it could just be a temporary marker, but what with the sharp, stake-y nature of that point, you have to wonder if it isn't also a precaution... Just to be sure.... ;)

All very picturesque, even in the light drizzle, but it is definite tourist central though.  Again, no grinding poverty here.

We had a deliciously cheap meal of the Romanian specialty Mamaliga (cornmeal mush, a bit polenta like) with cream and cheese and stewed meat respectably - nice but the pile of cream cheese topped with cream which outweighed the Mamaliga was almost overwhelming - in a restaurant in the square and rounded the evening off with an unexpectedly large bucket of gorgeous red wine in a friendly café, then home to bed for a lovely undisturbed night's sleep.  Well, I presume the zero tolerance drinking and driving rules also apply to vampires and they wouldn't have been able to go very far after a taste of me last night... ;)

And so it was a dark and stormy night as we approached the village of Bran, with the castle looming over inhabitants who were too scared to be out on the streets and approached the castle door which creaked open, moved by unseen hands...

Actually that's a lie, it was a drizzly early afternoon with a watery sun peering through the clouds, the castle is barely visible through the trees, the villagers don't want to leave their stalls in case they miss the opportunity to sell you some tat, disappointingly little of which is Dracula based, and we didn't get near the door, but as it's all downhill from here, I thought I should at least start on a high...

I didn't know that Dracula is loosely based on the actual figure of  Vlad Draculea (Draculea meaning 'son of the dragon' after his father Vlad Dracul (dracul = dragon), a knight of the Order of the Dragon) who is one and the same as Vlad the Impala, the ruling prince of Wallachia (1456-62 and 1476-77) who, despite his preferred method of dealing with his enemies being to insert a stake into their bottom slowly and carefully enough for it come out of their mouths without damaging any major organs, therefore ensuring a slow and painful death, was actually a bit of a hero when it came to resisting the onslaught of the Ottoman Empire.

There is no evidence he ever even visited Bran Castle and it was certainly never his home.  We had already decided that we weren't going inside - every guidebook I have read on the subject unanimously declares it to be an expensive anticlimax - but as it is one of those places-I-knew-about-from-childhood-and-never-ever-thought-I-would-ever-ever-go-to-in-real-life, we went anyway, hoping for at least a fairytale view, but didn't even get that. 

There isn't even that much in the way of Dracula references and only a very small amount of vampire related tat in amongst the rustic wicker baskets, carved wooden things and religious iconery - it's no whitby!!  

I had taken my trusty pencil just in case but this was the only vampire I saw and he just wasn't worth the effort (and as Will says, as his heart is effectively made of a wooden stake, he's already fighting a loosing battle...)  

disappointing :(

So we headed back to Rasnov, hoping for some mediaeval hilltop fortress action, only to be told (by the very helpful tourist office, I think I was his only visitor in weeks!) that it was closed indefinitely due to bits of it having fallen down. 

We walked up the footpath - splashes of blood and here I am without my pencil!!! -

to the foot of the massive sign anyway - what is it with these hollywood signs?? -

but the view was disappointing - I was expecting spooky pine forests in transylvania not wide open plains and industrial estates! - 

and headed back to town where we have cheered ourselves up with a beer and a randomly a flick through our adventures pics so far.  We have come along way from our crankshaft on the workbench/van with black eyes beginnings 10 months ago!

Incidentally, on the road yesterday, we crossed the 45th parallel - which we only know as there was a café of that name by the side of the road.  So, we have come up from the depths of nearly the 36th in the Mani (which is very nearly as far south as Tarifa) and are back level with where we were in Bordeaux in November (having touched just above that far north briefly in Como and Slovenia).

Only 26 parallels to go to Nordkapp... Blimey, that does put it in perspective!

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