After three months exploring the Czech Republic and the Baltic countries, we needed to leave Schengen. A couple of cheap RyanAir flights got us to Romania, which we loved when we visited last year. This time we headed out of the capital to Timisoara, on the western side of the country.
The city itself has beautiful architecture that mixes Romanian, Austo-Hungarian, and German styles. Several large plazas dot the old town, and the Bega river runs nearby. In 2021 Timisoara will be a European Capital of Culture, which seems like a justified choice. There is plenty of art around the city, starting with statues dotting the city center. During the few weeks we were in town, there were two free movie festivals and a free opera and play festival. We went to multiple performances in Parcul Rozelor and watched The Fiddler on the Roof and Grafin Mariza with several thousand other fans. And even though these performances were done in an outdoor theatre, it was the full production, with large casts and and all the set pieces.
Timisoara also takes great pride in its parks. The Bega is lined with green spaces, which are dotted with restaurants, bars, and paddle-boat rentals. A favorite is definitely the Children’s Park, which is dotted with play equipment and scooter rentals, not to mention ice cream vendors. A shady river walk runs for several kilometers through the downtown and made for a less-trafficked way home.
The most famous (and possibly best) museum in town is the Banat Village Museum. Just a quick tram ride outside of the center, the museum recreates the feel of a small farm or village from the turn of the last century. Dozens of homes and village buildings have been relocated and then decorated with antique and period furnishings. There are even live animals like chickens wandering the premises and grape vines shading the porches. It was a peaceful way to spend an afternoon, and just around the corner is a small zoo. The zoo is largely farm animals, though there are a few monkeys and European brown bears as the centerpieces.
About two and a half hours away by car, Hunedoara is home to a spectacularly photogenic castle. Corvin Castle has been restored, along with the famous bridge that leads to it. We were lucky enough to find a BlaBlaCar headed in the right direction, which save us several extra hours of bus travel. The interior of the castle is partly restored, though the rooms are largely bare. It was a fun place to wander around for an hour or so. The best views are definitely facing the castle from the main approach.
Timisoara was a relaxed place to stay for a month. Of all the cities we’ve visited so far, I think the people here were the friendliest. Even our few, terribly-pronounced words of Romanian brought out smiles. At our local market, Piata Iosefin, we got by with our Romanian and even a few words of German.
Also, their graffiti artists seem to be in a really good mood. I’ve never seen so many smily faces and positive notes scrawled on the walls. Any place this welcoming deserves as much attention as it can get! I’d love to head back someday, perhaps to check out the city when it is Capital of Culture in just a few more years.
This rambling features a bunch of ‘favorite’ European sights that is entirely based on today’s mood (and then basically pulling a name out of a hat if we couldn’t decide) and our current state of melting in ~85+ degree heat and 90% humidity. Anything that reminds us of a cold day probably got moved up subconsciously. And of course, our experiences were colored because some places were under renovation while others were too crowded to make our experience feel worth the admission cost.
Best Art Museum: National Art Museum of Catalunya (MNAC) in Barcelona. This was the only museum we visited multiple times because Saturday afternoons are free. 🙂 The palatial building has art-filled wings and frescoed domes. It dominates a hillside above Venetian-styled towers, waterfalls and fountains. MNAC’s collection is incredible – 13th century altarpieces (with mayhem-causing demons or saints boiling away in pots), Art Deco stained glass and advertising posters, sketches of the Spanish Civil War’s destruction, works by El Greco, Rubens, Goya…
Favorite Mode of Transit: Seaplane from Split to Dubrovnik. Head to Split’s picturesque harbor, sip on drinks waterside, board to find there are only 3 passengers, enjoy gorgeous mountain and island views all the way down the coast. A 45-minute jaunt and the chance the shoreline slip by is much preferable to a 4+ hour bus ride featuring two bonus border crossings.
Best City for Drinking Outside: Budapest. This city takes summer drinking to a new level. Mix cheap beer, lots of public space, great transit and voila! Some parks have stands selling alcohol, but it is more common to bring your own. Time of day doesn’t particularly matter, though nights are better, especially if you come across live music or a soccer match screening. Fisherman’s Bastion and the pedestrian-only Liberty Bridge provide some great views and enough drinking space for everyone.
Most Impressive City Walls: Dubrovnik. Game of Thrones is filmed there for a reason. Several cities we visited had walls in the past, but Dubrovnik’s are complete and you can walk all the way around them, exploring towers and the intimidating Lovrijeniac Fortress across a small bay. The blue Adriatic and the tightly packed Old Town fill the views.
Happiest Palace: Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal. Move over, Neuschwanstein. Not only is the Pena Palace more brightly colored, it was actually lived in. The interior is just as cheerful as the outside with fountains and tiles. The grounds are pretty as well, with rambling trails, live black swans, and carefully planned views.
Favorite Old Town: Tallinn. Small, surrounded by towers, full of church spires, pastel colored buildings, and a pretty hill to climb. Yes, restaurants and souvenir poods dominate. We ignored those and focused on the cuteness, small parks, and quieter streets. Note: we avoided the high season, weekends, and cruise tour groups.
Library Nearest My Vision of Heaven: Trinity College Library, Dublin. One of about three places that looked like their Instagram images, no photoshopping required. Thousands of books, richly colored wood, gorgeous bindings. Large crowds detracted a bit. It isn’t a very wide room since the sides are cordoned off, but at least we could stay as long as we wanted to try to soak it in. The library at Portugal’s Palace of Mafra gets an honorable mention because it is equally beautiful, with far fewer visitors. The downside there is not being able to walk as far into it to get a sense of the scale. But the huge cross-shaped hall is gorgeous marblework worthy of a such an impressive royal residence.
Most Interesting Non-Art Museum: Village Museum, Bucharest. Outside in a city park, the Village Museum let us tour the Romanian countryside without leaving Bucharest. Dozens of old buildings – homes, churches, barns, windmills have been preserved, and turned into a living history museum. Lots of love has gone into furnishing the homes and keeping the carved gates and painted details. It was fun even in a storm (we sheltered in a wine press). The wide variety of structures showcased the different traditional styles from around Romania.
Sports Team with the Most Rabid Fans: Hadjuk Soccer Club from Split. Our hosts warned us that if we were ever harassed in a bar or on the street to just say “Volimo Hajduk” (“We love Hajduk!” – we never had to, everyone was really kind). Graffiti with the name Hajduk and their red-and-white checker colors was EVERYWHERE – sidewalks, buses, underpasses, huge murals on buildings. They have their own branded chocolate, liquor, snacks. Every kid must own at least one jersey. Even in Dubrovnik, Hajduk reigned.
Coincidental Event We Didn’t Plan to See But Enjoyed the Most: Red Bull Air Race, Budapest. Ok, so the weather was terrible, practices were cancelled, events cut short, and we didn’t get to see them fly under the bridge (a thing they convince the planes to do!). And it was still an incredible display of reflexes and flying planes stupidly close to water and between buildings in the center of a city with thousands of people cheering on either side of the river.
Creepiest Cemetery: Cemiterio dos Prazeres, Lisbon. Ghosts clearly come out at night. Above ground tomb, with doors of broken glass, let the lace curtains covering the coffins flutter in the wind. Few people, but cats in surprising places watching you.
Church Putting All Others to Shame: La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. La Sagrada Familia is otherwordly. It stands alone, strikingly different from any other church we saw. Inside, the white stone canvas swirls with rainbows of colored light streaming through the stained glass. Statuary covers the exterior, the side portraying the Crucifixion is in violent relief, the opposite showing Creation is decadent with natural scenery. It is expensive, the priciest building we entered, but worth it – even with the thousand other people. While waiting to enter you can even watch the ongoing construction, and dream about what it will look like when finished.
Most Heartwrenching Memorial: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The preserved concentration, forced labor, and death camp complex is a sobering memorial to human suffering and powerful warning about the evils humans will commit. Crowds detract a bit initially, but it was easy to begin to ignore them and turn inward to try to understand the horrors that happened there. Auschwitz I was on a too-human scale, its brick buildings reminded me of college dorms. But of course, inside are the exhibits of human hair, items confiscated from the victims. It’s awful. My stomach churned for hours remembering that people tortured, murdered, starved so many. Auschwitz-Birkenau’s vastness magnifies the horrors of Auschwitz I. Everyone should visit to confront the world’s failure to stop the Holocaust and the ongoing need to keep it from recurring.
Historical Artifact We Should Have Learned about In School but Didn’t: Romania’s Steel Crown. King Carol I asked for a crown of steel made from cannons captured by soldiers fighting for Romania’s independence. He wanted to remember their sacrifice.
Cheapest Deal: Castles during Croatia’s off season. They often charge at least a small admission fee. But in April, some days no one will be at the ticket booth and the castles will still be open (can’t blame them for wanting to hike up if no tourists seem to be in town). 🙂 Happened at Omis and on Hvar.
Cutest Public Artwork: Book Fountain in Budapest. Water makes it look like the book’s pages are turning. It’s cute. The end.
Prettiest Hiking: Plitvice Lakes, Croatia. We visited during the off-season and avoided the worst crowds, and it was peaceful and pretty. Boardwalks weave around the waterfalls and under the trees; it’s a perfect way to spend at least an afternoon.
Where to See Books & Manuscripts Up Close: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. The large libraries are beautiful in their own right, but only display a handful of books – they are all still on shelves. This museum focuses on individual books and has hundreds on display, all the way back to papyrus from ancient Egypt and fragments from the earliest copies of several books of the Bible.
Favorite Fortress for Exploring: Suomenlinna, Helsinki. A small series of islands in the Gulf of Finland have the preserved remains of a massive fort that guarded Helsinki’s harbor. The tunnels running through many ramparts and rocky waterfronts are open for exploring.
Stress-inducing Thing that was Fun Afterward: Driving in Romania. Driving laws in Romania appear to be suggestions. Roads are shared with speeding semis, horse-drawn carts, bicycles, cars pulling over for no reason. Everyone honks for everything. But the countryside is pretty, especially in the Transylvanian mountains.
City Walking that Doesn’t Suck: Barcelona’s Wide Boulevards. Outside the Gothic Quarter’s tangled mess, sidewalks are huge, open, flat. The city is easy to navigate because just about every street is at a right angle.
Here are some other things grouped by city that I didn’t want to come up with individual paragraphs for:
The damp of Diocletian’s palace basement in Split still shows how good Romans were at construction. Ruins at Solin add to that argument. Klis Fortress is also pretty but they clearly know people are coming due to GoT filming – the price keeps going up.
The shore path on the Babin Kuk side of Dubrovnik was more relaxing than ones nearer the Old Town. Ferrying out to Lokrum Island also avoided about 95% of the crowd and was a nice place to spend an afternoon being stalked by peacocks.
Bucharest has a beautiful Orthodox church every few blocks. Towering over everything, the Palace of the Parliament is a primer in government waste. Two hours away in the mountains, Peles Castle proves that a country doesn’t have to have a royal family for very long before all the trappings show up.
In addition to the Uprising Museum, the entire city of Warsaw is a WWII memorial. Walking anywhere you come upon plaques and statues commemorating events or people, letting you map out the destruction in your own neighborhood. In the suburbs, the Wilanow Palace serves as a reminder of the pre-WWII era.
Krakow crams a lot into a small space, which explains why it’s packed with tourists. The Franciscan Basilica is incredible. The park encircling the Old Town, the riverfront walk, or Kazimierz (the traditionally Jewish area) gets away from some of the horde. Further out, the now-parklike Plaszow Concentration Camp is Auschwitz’s lesser-known cousin that makes a thoughtful accompaniment to Oskar Schindler’s Factory.
Again, these are the places that stuck out the most. Just about everything we saw was worth our time in some way or another. For every place we saw, there are more we heard about but didn’t get to. I suppose yet another reason to head back at some future point….
We’ve moved back to the Americas for the foreseeable future, leaving fall and winter behind. Sorry Europe, it’s time for some beaches in Mexico and Latin American culture. Coming snow and chill aside, I’m going to miss all the countries we visited in Europe. I thought it might be fun to do a recap of the best things we saw and ate and some of the oddities we noticed. New blogs will be light this month as we are staying in a beach town and well… basically going to the beach every day. This post is all about the food and drink in eight countries we visited in Europe, starting with the best food from each place.
In Lisbon, Portugal, egg tarts reign. Just all of them all the time; get them from Pasteis de Belem or literally any other bakery. How their eggs are so tasty is a mystery. Even the eggs we got at the store had richer yolks and seemed tastier than eggly possible.
Best meal in Barcelona is tapas, hands down. Away from the tourist streets they are much cheaper and about 483% better. Every possible combination of cheese, veggies, and meat is available. For a Euro, you can have a couple bites that taste like the equivalent of $40 meal. And usually there is a wide variety so it is perfect if someone wants hamburgers and another person wants fruit & cheese plates.
Ajvar is Croatia’s contribution to culinary heaven. A blend of peppers and eggplant, it fits between pasta sauce and salsa. Doesn’t sound too special, but it was my go-to topping for toast, eggs, chips, pasta, crackers, meat, or sometimes just by the spoonful by itself. Especially worth nothing when served on cevapi, a skinless sausage sandwich that may cause you to nearly ruin your shirt in your hurry to get it all in your face because YUM! I searched for ajvar in every European country we went to post-Croatia. (Romania has a similar food called zakusca, but it’s more soupy and forgettable.)
In Bucharest, Romania, the Caru’ cu Bere restaurant served up cheap lunch eats. We had superb sour kraut salad, polenta (with a rich topping of cheese, cream, and egg – it was the appetizer but basically became my main course), and tomato and cucumber salad.
Fish was the best bet in Ireland. There isn’t really any specific way to have it prepared as long as it’s fresh. Locals emphasized that Irish cuisine doesn’t have a ‘must-try’ dish. In fact, Dublin may have had the highest percentage of restaurants and shops focusing on cuisine from other cultures.
Goulash soup was probably the highlight of Hungary. Full of meats, veggies, and paprika, it is warm and rich. It’s probably more suited to winter than summer, so we need to go back in a season when I can eat more of it. It’s definitely not the hamburgery noodles I grew up calling goulash. Also, in a possible tie, Hungary has deep fried potato donuts. These are exactly what they sound like: a mix of potato and donut dough, fried for a crispy outside and soft, warm inside. Though they are called donuts, they aren’t dessert, but another example of Hungary’s love of high-calorie goodness.
Poland claims victory on the pierogi front, naturally. I didn’t know there could be so many kinds. Duck, mushroom, salmon, and berries make excellent fillings though ruskie (cheese and potato) is the most traditional and is clearly the King of Pierogies. Done right, they are puffy, joyous food pillows that I would gleefully eat for every meal.
Estonia wins dessert. Never thought I would say that Estonia has the best (non-egg tart) pastries, but they pulled it off. We were just a block away from a bakery that served up supremely fluffy pastries with the richest, smoothest creamy cheese fillings and icings. And Kalev, the main brand of chocolate, makes some of the best anywhere in Europe. Sorry, Germany, Kinder doesn’t cut it anymore.
Other food takeaways that surprised us:
Frozen veggies are tastier in Europe. There are Italian, Chinese, and Mexican mixes that taste as fresh as a salad. The flavors are intense – like the veggies just came out of the garden. And at $1-2 dollars a bag that would feed both of us for two or three meals, America can learn something.
Horse meat is really tasty. Seriously.
So is moose. It fits somewhere between prosciutto and beef jerky on the meat-flavor spectrum.
Portugal does the egg thing, but Spain must be the beneficiary of the actual chicken. Chicken in Spain tasted like a unique meat, not just a bland food needing lots of seasoning.
Duck is really cheap at Lidl in Hungary. And in Estonia. We shamelessly ate a lot of it.
We ate risottos in several countries and they are now probably a necessary part of my existence. The ones in Portugal were richer, more flavorful, and more gravy-like. At the Time Out Market near Lisbon’s waterfront, I had the best risotto of the whole trip with game hen and mushrooms. Ones in Hungary featured paprika, naturally.
Sushi is common in Estonia and is happy to blend local flavors and products. We even saw a full-color book of Estonian-Japanese fusion foods.
Peanut crisps (think Cheetos puffs with less corn and more legume) seemed to be the most popular snack in Croatia. They are addicting. Hrusk Crisps were my personal favorite. I now prefer them to cheese puffs, though I will admit that I got addicted to Latvian-produced nacho cheese balls in Estonia.
Thank Hungary for fair and festival food. They are masters of fried dough and carryable meat.
Chip flavors vary by country – salsa, paprika, prosciutto, mushroom, hamburger, kebab, dill, steak. There are more traditional flavors as well, the cheeses, onions, sour creams. Missing were Doritos Cool Ranch and Fritos.
We had goose legs for the first time in Hungary. Better than turkey.
All of Europe is terrible at spicy foods. The only partial exception is Hungary, which corners the paprika market, but still only reaches a small percentage of what we got used to in Southeast Asia.
Dill doesn’t seem to exist in most places. It was only readily available in Estonia, presumably because they have salmon in large quantities. And salmon necessitates dill.
Peanut butter is an exotic rarity. While it can be found in some supermarkets, it is 2-5 times more expensive than in the U.S. and is often grittier and lacking spreadability. And often hiding out in the refrigerated section.
Europe loves cheese. The Iberian peninsula favors soft cheeses, while Romania northward seemed much more in love with hard, aged cheeses. Even so, finding appropriate cheese for nachos in Croatia was nearly impossible. Same goes for pre-shredded.
Most know Spain is famous for prosciutto, but Hungary and Poland should also be on the preserved-meat fan’s radar. Especially Poland. Though the Central Market in Budapest had a stall serving what might have been the best prosciutto of the trip.
Instant ramen is ubiquitous (college kids everywhere survive on that stuff), but Poland took it a step further and had beetroot borscht alongside the chicken and shrimp flavors. Sure enough, same cheap noodles, but this time with a spice packet that turned the soup bright reddish-purple. And yes, it was good.
Of course, drinks go with food:
Literally ALL THE WINE IN PORTUGAL IS GOOD. We drank 3 -or 4-Euro bottles almost exclusively and had no regrets. The best ports were pricier. We shared a single small glass of 30 year-old port that cost about $7US and was smooth and flavorful. If only we had enough for whole bottles of that stuff…
Alcohol in Spain was disappointing; perhaps it was overshadowed by Portugal’s. The wine was more expensive and not to our liking, and the beers were forgettable.
Croatian wine, especially a grape variety called plavac mali, was the best thing to drink. The best bottle (we splurged for our birthdays) was produced by Zlatan Otok. We’ve never seen Croatian wine anywhere else, even other European nations, much less in the U.S. We were told their industry was growing, so hopefully we’ll be able to find it in the future.
An aside on Macedonian wine: They made their way frequently into Croatian stores, and it turns out they also deserve to be better known. Some are even aged in amphorae, modern versions of the containers pulled up from shipwrecks. This makes for more earthy wines, and is a fun way to feel a little more connected to the region’s history.
Sweet red wines are Romania’s forte. Even wines listed as dry are not. Kevin wasn’t thrilled by this, but I took it as a sign to make wine my dessert.
Hungary’s best drinking was sweet white wines from the Tokaji region. Like Romania, lots of residual sugar.
It turns out Poland does make a little bit of wine, but they make much more beer and (SO MUCH!) vodka. Too many (really cheap) drinkable beers to name, but there is one vodka that stands out. Bisongrass vodka isn’t available in the US (it’s just a teeny bit toxic), but it is the best vodka either of us has had.
Redcurrant wine in Estonia. Berries take the place of grapes here; thank goodness they can be fermented and aged the same way. More like drinking syrup than alcohol, it is another example of their domination of desserts. Though kvass (beer made from fermented bread that tastes like toast), should get an honorary mention.
Overall, the best countries for (grape) wine were 1. Portugal – a perfect blend of inexpesive and flavorful wines 2. Croatia – for their own unique grapes and the other Balkan countries that were represented, a little pricier but still lots of deals 3. Hungary has more sweeter wines and it matches well with their cuisine.
For beer, the rankings are mostly based on Kevin’s opinion. He appreciates beer more than I do, but the more we travel, the more I find ones I like. 1. Poland wins beer. It was cheap, there was a lot of it, and there was a wide variety. And all of it was good. Nothing randomly pulled off a shelf disappointed. They also are proud of a growing craft beer industry that has produced some interesting combinations. 2. Hungary snags second place because beer there is very cheap and usually of high quality. We did find a few duds, but for pennies a bottle, it is easy to experiment. 3. Estonia has a much bigger craft scene, so there is a lot of variety for a small country. Their overall cost of living means beer is pricier than any other European country we went to on this trip. But it is tasty and there is always something new to try.
Kevin gets to exclusively pick the favorites for harder liquor awarding first to: 1. Ireland for its smooth whisky. 2. Poland because they have all the vodka. Aisles and aisles of vodka. And all the locals love it. We saw an 80 year-old couple checking out at the store with chicken, three apples, a can of coffee, and about 8 bottles of vodka. Not sure if that is how they stand each other or their children or just because they are 80 and who gives? 3. Estonia has Vana Tallinn, which makes run-based liquors and some that have winter spices in the mix – cozy for the growing chill.
Europe takes alcohol seriously. Quality is important, but so is quantity… In Croatia and a few other places, wine often comes in 1 liter bottles (rather than the U.S.-standard .75 liter). And beer. Beer cans in Europe make the standard U.S. can look like a child’s toy. Mass produced beers also come in 1- and 2-liter bottles, because beer! In Estonia, Finns hop the ferry over to buy cheaper alcohol. Estonia obliges by providing 10-packs of vodka (aka the “Finn-pack”) at all stores near the ferry dock, as well as handcarts to make carrying it back easy.
One of the interesting challenges was to try to find packaging with the most languages. The winner seemed to be a pizza box we got at Carrefour in Poland with full instructions and ingredient lists in 7 languages. (Two to four seemed to be about the average.) There was also a ketchup packet that had 11, but in almost every language the translation for ‘tomato ketchup’ is ‘tomato ketchup.’
In some cities, there are still wonderfully diverse markets showcasing local produce and meats. Some are considerably cheaper than stores for in-season produce, but others are tourist-focused and overcharge accordingly. Usually they are worth going to in either case.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that food has become a main part of our trip. We mostly ate at home, Kevin taking the opportunity to try new recipes (paella and ratatouille and fish), while using local ingredients. Unlike Thailand and Malaysia, eating out often in Europe would have drained our budget too fast, though I will say that doner kebab is cheap and yummy and very common. It was a little tough moving each month because we never knew what kitchen utensils we would end up with or how well our stove would work. Some of our favorite foods were ones we’ve had before but that had new twists or tasted completely different because of the quality of the ingredients. While we are happy to have moved on to a place where spicy food is again available and taco trucks are on many corners (namely ones by grocery store parking lots), Europe has so much more deliciousness to offer that we will have to head back… Even eight months was only enough time to get to a small portion of it all…
We took a few days last week to escape Bucharest and drive to the countryside. Our goal was a cabin just outside of Bran (of Transylvania/Dracula tourist fame). The cabin was a peaceful experience – we overlooked a small hayfield and mountains were in the distance – but getting there was not. Kevin always draws the short straw when it comes to rental car driving and I attempt navigation. I knew where we were going, though trying to determine how to get through some of Bucharest’s intersections defies all logical road rules. Sometimes turning left on green requires first going into the right lane and waiting for a second light to change. Drivers here also tend to stop by the side of the road with no warning and for any reason. It’s all very unpredictable.
On the highway to Bran we stopped for a few hours to tour Peleș Castle, the summer residence of the royal family from the late 1800s. King Carol I made a brilliant choice. Peleș is in the mountains where summer is cooler and hiking and hunting were abundant. The castle feels very Bavarian (Carol I was actually German), and looks like a cabin on steroids.
The palace interior is anything but cabiny – Venetian glass, marble, carved walnut, all the amenities the turn of the century could provide. I think it is the first castle we’ve been where electricity and telegraph lines were installed as it was built. And when an interior courtyard was covered over to make a grand staircase and reception hall, the King and Queen had the foresight to put on a retractable roof. Clearly, someone in the family was loaded.
The tour at Peles lasted about 45 minutes, and then we were back on our way. We arrived at our cabin mid-afternoon, just as a thunderstorm was rolling over the top of the mountains behind us. Thinking Bran Castle would be at its eeriest with rain and lighting as a backdrop, we found an umbrella and walked into town. Contrary to what many photos had us believe, Bran Castle isn’t situated alone in the mountains – there is a small town at its base that serves tourists and is full of souvenir shops and restaurants. Despite this, the castle sits separated in a park of its own and manages to look at least a little ominous.
Of course, it used to be homier than it is now (the interiors currently are almost completely white and very stark). Queen Marie used this castle as her own summer retreat and a few swatches show it would have been painted with floral motifs and been much cozier.
Two rooms were dedicated to the Dracula legend and all the movies that have come out of the Bram Stoker’s book. Bran Castle does seem to be an inspiration for the story, but Vlad didn’t live there. It just conveniently looked like the castle described in the book and was suitably close to Bucharest.
Castles aside, the Romanian countryside is gorgeous. The plains felt Midwestern. Corn and wheat were growing in abundance. We passed shepherds with small flocks of sheep and cattle every few miles. Horse drawn carts were still in use in the smaller towns. Up in the mountains, many roadside stands were offering berries, and livestock grazed next to the road, watched by their handlers. Traditional hay meadows, still scythed by hand, dot the tops of smaller mountains. Haystacks are also made by hand and are scattered throughout the small fields. Our neighbors were making one the morning we left – a tall pole through the middle and a tripod of legs make the base for the stack.
Driving back into Bucharest was less stressful than getting out of the city. We returned on a Friday, and there was a steady stream of nice cars going the opposite way. Something to do with a holiday weekend and the 90+ degree temperatures we returned to. In any case, we were happy we had the chance to escape mid-week and I’d definitely love to return to the Carpathian Mountains in autumn.
We first spotted Romania’s Palace of the Parliament as we walked along the Dâmbovița River. The building is ridiculously massive. It makes everything around it look toylike. We absolutely wanted to visit while we were in Bucharest.
We bought our tickets in one of the basement levels. Right away it was evident maintenance must be a big problem. Other visitors were pointed out water damage and ceiling cracks. I suppose a Palace of this size would have all the issues of a large office building, stadium, and convention center smushed together.
There is so much room that quite a bit of it is vacant much of the time. Both houses of Parliament meet in the building, and it also houses three museums, theatre spaces, offices (not in giant rooms, apparently, but still with lots of marble and wood trim), a conference center, and giant halls to rent if you have some extra money. Despite all these uses, it’s still not full…
We walked up hundreds of stairs and a couple of kilometers, but still only managed to see about 5% of the Palace. It is also supposed to be the heaviest structure in the world; given all the marble and concrete, I can readily believe it.
Our guide noted that basically all the materials making up the building are Romanian. The different color marbles were mined in the nearby Carpathian mountains and the wood is from local forests. This fact was almost as impressive as the structure itself. Entire industries must have given over huge portions of their production to finish it. Carpets were even made on site, in several pieces, and were sewn together inside because they were too large to move otherwise.
I did end up finding the Palace to be garish, even though many interior rooms are beautifully decorated. It would be a great place to host a party, but it is a also a reminder of how Ceaușescu’s regime misspent money and destroyed a neighborhood in order to built a monument to itself.
Bucharest’s Village Museum is perhaps the most entertaining museum in the city. Dozens of cottages, farmsteads, and churches have been moved from the Romanian countryside to a park in Bucharest and reassembled. It’s a lot like Old World Wisconsin minus the cultivated fields.
The structures are arranged to give the feel of walking through an old town. Each home has a yard, now full of blooming spring flowers, and some are connected with uneven stone paths.
Shortly after we arrived, the day clouded over and it started to storm. While the heaviest rain was falling, we hid out under the roof of a wine press (wine sadly not included) with a group of German tourists. Due to our bad timing, some of the buildings were closed. However, the open cottages were displaying the typical vestiges of everyday life – looms, wood-burning stoves, textiles, and handmade furniture. The fabrics were richly patterned and were used as clothing as well as decor.
Many of the farmyards were enclosed by fences or even walls. Some looked like small fortified towns – high wooden walls sheltered a house and collection of outbuildings meant for animals, firewood, and wagons.
Bucharest has also fed several of my other nerdy hobbies this week. We arrived in time for Bookfest, the largest book-related event in Romania. Naturally, most of the focus is on Romanian-language book and authors; at least one new book was being launched every hour. Fortunately there was enough English-language literature that I was able to find a few things to read this month.
Among its grandly-buildinged national museums, Bucharest also hides a National Museum of Old Maps and Books. Located in a mansion on a residential street, it has three floors of maps showing the changing borders of Romania and Europe and how world exploration advanced. It was interesting to see the borders of Romania shift through the centuries (at one point the positions of Bulgaria and Romania basically reversed). A different map purporting to show the United States post-Louisiana Purchase had an overenthusiastic cartographer who gave the U.S. not only the area of the Purchase, but much of the West Coast and a large piece of Canada as well.
A couple of shorts flights moved us from Dubrovnik to Bucharest, Romania. We arrived at night but easily found our new apartment. We’ve spent the last couple of months in suburbs, but here we are right in the city center and close to all sorts of landmarks.
Bucharest is a stark contrast to Split and Dubrovnik. The city is much newer – the Old Town is mostly from the 1800s rather than the 1300s. The buildings are on a much grander scale, both because it is a city of two million and partly because it was rebuilt to be a royal capital modeled after Paris and then a capital to showcase Communist power.
Bucharest is more spread out, but without many hills, so it is easier to spend hours walking, our preferred way of exploring new places. Croatia was still experiencing the middle of spring, but here we’ve fast-forwarded to summer. We gained ten degrees and lots of leafy trees.
The National History Museum seemed like the best place to start since we don’t know as much as we’d like about Romania’s past. Unfortunately it is undergoing (apparently indefinite) remodeling. Only a few rooms were open, but there were some pretty impressive things on display.
A life-sized replica of Trajan’s Column took up a main gallery. Its panels show the conquering of the Dacians, who lived in the region 2000 years ago. Since the column is in sections at eye-level, we could see the carved details. It was interesting to me that many scenes focus on building bridges and forts and meeting emissaries rather than on fighting (though there is plenty of that as well). Trajan clearly wanted Romans to think he was capable in all situations.
Royal jewels were also on display. The King’s crown was my favorite piece; it’s made of steel rather than precious metal. Forged from a cannon captured by Romanian troops fighting the Ottomans for independence, the King wanted it to be a reminder of the soldiers’ bravery and the price of creating a sovereign nation.
Roman funerary tablets and inscriptions and miscellaneous jewelry from the last 2000 years rounded out the collection.
Romanian Orthodox Churches seem to be on almost every block in the city center, sometimes quietly sandwiched between massive apartment blocks. They remind me of churches we saw in the Catalunyan Art Museum in Barcelona. The interiors are dim, but covered in paintings and murals. No space is left plain, and it would be easy to spend hours studying the scenes in each church.
Finally, an item that caught my eye at the History Museum was a photograph of the street outside our apartment building. Since the December 1989 Revolution, the trees have grown and blocked the view and the tanks have gone. It really drove home how recently the repressive regime was thrown off.