I travelled back home (as a tourist) during a scorching hot August. My initial plan was to conquer the powdery slopes, soak in the incredible view of the snow-capped mountains, and be greeted by the brisk, invigorating mountain air which makes you crave for hearty stews and mulled wine heavy with citrus and spices. But after a second thought, my apprehension at not seeing winter for so long vanished, and a cloud of inspiration suddenly appeared.
Seasons shouldn’t play such an important role during this trip. Everything ought to be less about filling the yearning of something I’ve been lacking in the past years, but more a re-enactment of how I used to spend my summers in Romania as a local. To do so, I created a mental map of all the places I went to and decided to do it all over again and discover my own country anew.
Viva la revolución!
My first stop was Bucharest. For decades and especially in the pre-communist times, the capital used to be known as “Paris of the East” or “Little Paris”, mostly due to fashion and architectural influences. But many years after the revolution, Bucharest, at last, unearthed its real self. Okay, these days you may still hear comparisons to Berlin in terms of the hip musical, artsy and cultural scene, but overall, the city is slowly building up its own personality.
Old Neoclassical and Art Nouveau buildings have been renovated; a comprehensive aesthetic and cultural modernisation has been ignited; congenial young designers and architects have revamped venues to make them look modern, minimalist, industrial and well, even a bit communist. The latter doesn’t come as a surprise for a socially-conscious people wanting to portray the past in a novel way.
Currently, in vogue places are Papiota (The Spool), with its sewing machine and ironing boards used as tables, fizzy cocktails and vibrant weekend parties; Bicicleta (The Bicycle), with original pieces of Pegas, an old bicycle brand born in the 1970s’ during communism, saddle-chairs and tables with wheels; and Acuarela (Watercolour), an eclectic meld of vintage memorabilia, Rococo design and masculine-industrial appearance, mellowed by an explosion of colourful umbrellas used as the terrace’s roof.
Over the several days, I digested the information I always knew about this city so dear to me. And I realised that even if sometimes the gritty Soviet buildings interfere with its aesthetic balance and make it look like it’s sobering up from a hangover, it does have the power to emerge from the communist stigma. A stroll through Centrul Vechi (the Old City Centre) will prove so: bouncing back as the capital’s culture, arts and nightlife hive, new crops of hip bars, international restaurants and avant-garde galleries are always abuzz here. I dined at some of my old favourite places, to satiate the craving for Romanian cuisine. One is Caru’ cu bere, in the past one of the capital’s favourite meeting places for the intelligentsia. There I had a decadent platter of cheeses, cold cuts and raw vegetables, followed by a hefty portion of smoked pork hocks with beans, and homebrewed beer.
To discover the ever-progressive bohemian scene and to go down on memory lane, I started exploring even more of my Bucharest.
At Muzeul de Artă Modernă (Museum of Contemporary Art) — housed in a wing of the outrageously grandiose Palace of Parliament, a humongous structure built by the former dictator Ceaușescu and which can supposedly be seen from space — I visited a temporary exhibition of multimedia installations and a while later I followed my ritual of having a cup of coffee at the museum’s café, from where you can enjoy the vista of the symmetrical boulevards.
Later on I headed to Palatul Ştirbey (Ştirbey Palace), a lovely palace from the 19th century, surrounded by an enormous verdant area where several festivals and concerts are organised every year.
The following day I drove back to Câmpulung, where my family lives, and immersed in the small-town atmosphere. Surrounded by mountains, hills and valleys, this sleepy town is a good base for hiking, trekking, mountain climbing and cycling.
Past dromedary hills, beauty beckons
Up north, towards Transylvania, the Carpathian Mountains, righteously deemed as one of few mountains in Europe with uninterrupted and unspoilt forests and pastures, reveal a world of tradition and myth; this range comprises numerous mountains, nature parks and reserves — beyond what I could count with my fingers.
While driving through this majestic landscape, I felt genuinely happy. Everywhere I looked, the sky seemed pierced by dramatic mountains. Basil-green meadows hug the roads. Haystacks dot the uninhabited pieces of land, and how dear it was to catch a glimpse of an ocean of verdant fir-trees.
In these forests, trails wind up and down taking you to the very heart of nature. From a vantage point I saw cyclists making their way through the rich greenery, up to some remote place. With a good guide you could explore these upper valleys and be introduced to a different kind of Romania. Mulberries and wild strawberries bushes are likely to be found there and if you are lucky (or unlucky) you may even say hello to brown bears and wolves.
However, the encounter with scary creatures would only come later…when I finally stopped at Castelul Bran (Bran Castle). Hailed as Dracula’s castle, this gorgeous structure with a history spanning several centuries has little to do with garlic, fangs and blood. An encounter with the lead character, Mr. Dracula himself may only be real in the ’94 movie Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, and as much as I wanted to scare my Singaporean friends with gory stories, I am afraid that my only memories are of a fairy-tale castle filled with Neo-Rococo and Biedermeier items, quaint courtyards and cobblestone pathways leading to dreamy gardens.
Leaving Bram Stoker’s Dracula fantasy world aside, I thought of the times when Romania had a monarchy and that the castle used to belong to one of the former princesses, Ileana, who set up a hospital there to treat soldiers in World War II. Today, come summer, contemporary jazz music resounds from the small patio of the castle and outside the gates, kürtőskalács, a delicious pastry specific to Hungarian-speaking regions, is omnipresent.
Moving on, I arrived at the ancient hilltop fortress of Râşnov, only 15 kilometres from Bran. Alas, it was not winter, or the encounter with the medieval fortress would have been sweeter. However, despite the lack of snow-clad fairy-tale-like rooftops and the sea of silvery pine trees, summer had its rewarding treats: within the citadel I huffed and puffed up and down the stony narrow paths winding through traditional houses covered with tile and I even tried my skill at target shooting with a bow and arrow. Seeing para-gliders swiftly gliding above the fortress, I swore that next time I wouldn’t miss that for the world!
Some 18 kilometres later, I checked in at Braşov, a city rich in medieval and Renaissance architecture. Seen from above, Braşov resembles a puzzle of vibrant brick red miniature buildings. In Piața Sfatului (Council Square), I gawked at Biserica Neagră (The Black Church), the largest sacred structure in Romania and discovered it’s the most prominent Gothic church in the entire country. Once settled by Saxons (German colonists), the city is a clear aesthetic proof of not having been touched by the communist regime. Well-preserved buildings are everywhere, there is a slower-pace of life as opposed to that of the capital, locals are friendlier and the air is fresher. High above the city is Poiana Braşov, a renowned ski resort, set deep in the Carpathian mountains. A densely-forested landscape makes up this area, where during skiing season, you shouldn’t be startled if you see courageous slope bashers enjoying the extreme challenge to ski down off-piste routes through the thick forested mountain.
It’s a kind of magic
My last stop was Sighişoara. Located about one-and-a-half hours’ drive from Braşov, this town stands as one of the most beautiful and well-preserved medieval towns in Europe. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sighişoara boasts burgher houses, towers, intricate churches and historic streets, not unlike that in Vienna and Old Prague.
Here, Dracula fans can rejoice once again: Sighişoara is the birthplace of Vlad Țepes (Vlad the Impaler), a ruler of Walachia province and the inspiration of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula.
A myriad of watchtowers guard this intact medieval town, which gives the impression of strongly unifying with the neighbouring montane scenery. I climbed 110 steps to the top of the most famous of these towers (Turnul cu Ceas) and from the lookout, I tried to absorb all the beauty of this country that was home for over a quarter of a century.
The cityscape’s jumbled rooftops looked like ripe apricots in the warm sunlight and again, I thought of my Singaporean friends who always tease me about Dracula. Considering this legend is so popular in all corners of the world, it dawned upon me that, perhaps, there is indeed something magical to it and that no matter how much Romanians try to burn it at the stake, the idea of Dracula will outlive us all.