Romania – Highlights Of An Unheralded Destination

We hear the strains of chanting even before the monastery looms into view. It gets louder as we step into the candle lit interior, perfumed by incense, the echoes of sonorous Byzantine hymns bouncing off the frescoed walls. It’s a compact space with a dozen or so worshippers, men and women segregated to either side. The melodic chants, alternating between them, transport us half way across the world to the intriguing strains of another culture. I cannot imagine a better introduction to Romania than this mystical liturgy in one of few sacred places in Bucharest – the Stavropoleos Monastery – that survived the demolition spree of the 70s.

Byzantine music at the Stavropoleos Monastery, Bucharest
Stavropoleos Monastery, Bucharest

“Why Romania?” is a curious refrain throughout this trip. It is apparent independent Indian travellers (from India) aren’t as common a sight here as in more popular European destinations. I don’t really have a specific reason. It was more a case of playing tic-tac-toe over a list of less visited destinations that would let us in on our extended Schengen visas rather than a conscious choice. I had been issued a one year German visa when I was invited by GNTB last October and Italy generously matched its remaining validity when Ravi applied for his before our summer visit to Puglia.

We set about planning with meagre knowledge of the country beyond Transylvania and its vampire myths. Beyond those very popular myths, however, we uncovered a series of delightful surprises. And engaged with some of the loveliest people we have met anywhere, whose diversity (in ethnicity and religious orders) and the disillusionment with their politics we could so relate to.

The Palace Of Parliament
Palace of Parliament, Bucharest – The vainglorious project of a dictator who fancied himself king.

Considering their tumultuous history it isn’t surprising that all conversations culminate in discussions of politics. Romania, or more precisely each of its distinct regions, has changed hands more times than one can count and it’s borders altered as often. It’s been a long and traumatic journey since its consolidation into a nation state by the union of Transylvania and Moldavia along with parts of Banat, Crișana, and Maramureș with Wallachia, through the tyranny of the communist regime, it’s brutal end resulting in the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena, to a modicum of economic stability and admission into the EU. You feel the hope and the angst. As well as the impatience. Much of its young population has migrated to the West, which explains the conspicuous absence of younger men in the rural areas we visited.

It is most likely because we have little expectation from Bucharest that we enjoy it as much. The monastery visit on this warm sunny morning sets the tone for the rest of our full day here. The historic centre seems the least frenzied of any we have visited of late and appears to have a more or less equal ratio of locals to tourists. One might argue that it is a shadow of its former self, thanks to the communist era destruction of scores of heritage buildings, but we both agree that it merits more time than its critics allow.

The Transfargassen Highway
Bridge Of Lies, Sibiu. The ‘eyes’ on the roofs are lidded attic windows.
Council Square, Brasov
Flock of white doves over the rooftops of Sighisoara.

Transylvania’s photogenic splendour lives up to the hype. Our drive north through the Transfargassen highway meandering wildly through the rugged Carpathian mountains, with a bear sighting thrown in for good measure, is incredibly scenic. As is our return to Transylvania (from Bucovina) through the Bicaz gorge, its steep slopes already burnished gold by late September.

Sibiu, with it’s signature houses-with-eyes and its beautiful squares and churches all prettied up during its role as European Culture Capital 2007, makes a great base for interesting day trips to castles, fortified Saxon churches and ancient archaeological sites. Brasov, nestled in a valley ringed by snow clad peaks that turn into ski slopes in winter oozes all the charm one would expect from an European old town. While the citadel of Sighisoara, birth place of  Vlad-the-Impaler aka Count Dracul, feels straight out of a fairy tale…Unesco certified and insanely popular for a reason.

There are churches every step of the way in Romania. Easily more, per capita, than there are pagodas in Myanmar! It takes effort to wrap our heads around the different Christian orders each belongs to. Not surprisingly, we are nearly churched-out by the time we reach Bucovina, but we still can’t get enough of the painted monasteries this region is renowned for, their colours almost as vivid as in their touched up photographs.

Moldovita Monastery, Suceava County
The scene of the ‘Last Judgment’, Voronet Monastery, Bucovina

It is Maramures, however, unspoilt and rooted in traditional practices, that is the highlight of our trip. We get an immersive introduction to this bastion of traditional farming from Teo, a Maramures resident. And choosing to stay with locals adds greatly to the experience.

Over two full days we get to admire its vernacular timber architecture: soaring wooden churches, shingle-roofed houses and ornate carved gates, we walk through sleepy villages and a quirky cemetery, interact with farmers and craftsmen, attend sunday service in an UNESCO church and a memorial service lunch in another. Rounded off by a sobering reminder of the human capacity for evil at the Memorial to The Victims of Communism in the town of Sighetu Marmației.

All Maramures elements in a single frame.
Awaiting lunch after a memorial service at Serb Susani wooden church, Maramures.
The Quirky cemetery in Sapanta, Maramures.
A cemetery called ‘Merry’ in Sapanta, Maramures
Memorial to The Victims of Communism in the town of Sighetu Marmației
Photographs of the ‘Victims of Communism’ line the walls of the memorial in Sighetu Marmației,
Classic Maramures landscape

We wind up with four full days in Budapest whose opulent good looks Romania’s prettiest cities would be hard pressed to match. But Romania scores, for us, in charm and authenticity. And the disarmingly self-deprecating nature of the people we came in contact with.

We are unable to fit in Prejmer on the way in from Bucovina so Cristian, whose transfer services I had hired, gets his cousin (in Brasov) to take us the next afternoon. Musec isn’t a guide and needs to take off earlier from work to accommodate the request. As he navigates his car through the traffic of downtown Brasov in a sudden downpour, he laughingly narrates his colleagues’ incredulous reaction to the fact that we had come all the way from India to see the little castle-church in their backyard that they take for granted.

“If they want to see it, it must be special.”

It is. So is the country