Roving Romania – 2: Bran castle and beyond…

Shahriar Feroze
Thursday, December 1st, 2016


 

Rising straight above a rocky headland, the locality of the small Bran town is surrounded by thick undulating forests. Though Bran’s connections to either the real Vlad Dracul or the fictional Count Dracula is thin, but it’s amazing to follow how a century old guesswork made by a few have strongly tied the Dracula legend with this castle. However, the castle with or without Dracula surely stands right on the borders between Transylvania and Wallachia principalities – drawing endless curious tourists and horror aficionados.

 

Getting to Bran while locating the castle was not a problem, but to find a suitable cheap accommodation was. Nearly all hotels within the 3 kilometre radius were closed were closed as the school holidays season ended by early October. The temperature had dropped well below 8 degrees. Restaurants only near the castle were opened. Their opening hours too were short. Nevertheless, after three hours of wearisome strolling, this traveller finally managed to get a room at a nameless hotel. It was the first time I began to feel the bites of costs travelling in Europe. Contrary to cheap rabbit hole rooms found in Asian hotels, the rooms here either came with a kitchenette or a common kitchen for private cooking. For convenient travelling the clients either hired a car, cycle or a bike. Moreover, entry fees to museums and monument sites seems to shoot-up without any prior notice, costs of picking up/dropping off cars in different points are huge; cigarette costs and arm and a leg. Not many quick eateries are found beside the roads. Easy to get, cheap and expedient travelling options like tuk-tuk or auto rickshaws like in Asia is missing…etc…Etc…But as they say ‘where there is a will, there is a way’ and at the town of Bran my will was unremittingly winning against all odds.

 

Also this writer wasn’t there to have a taste of rare Romanian luxury, but to keep an appointment with the Count booked more than couple of decades ago. So when I had the first glimpse of the Bran castle, I couldn’t help recalling how the Count greeted Jonathan Harker in the novel – enter freely and of your own free will! I am Dracula, and I bid you welcome Mr. Harker to my house. Come in, the night air is chill, and you must need to eat and rest. The words seemed strikingly similar to my current reality in Bran. I arrived here out of my own free will. The early evening temperature was freezing. I was famished after a three hour drifting in search of a room and frantically needed some sleep.

 

The night seemed short perhaps for the good sleep. After gobbling down couple of instant noodles, this writer headed for his long desired appointment. The castle is now a museum open to tourists, displaying art and furniture collected by Queen Marie. As I joined the long queue facing the ticket counter, I spotted a sprawling shopping mall located on my left, consisting no less than some 50 souvenir shops and stalls – committed to promote and capitalise on a fictitious horror myth. It was a sprawling vampire industry selling over 300 various types of Dracula merchandise. Whatever, climbing up the castle’s conical towers, it was soon getting clearer how the setting matched so close with the description in the novel. Inside one can explore the rooms individually or by a guided tour. Even more exciting is that, one would learn more about Queen Maria and the vanished Romanian royalty than Dracula.

 

Built and then re-built, this royal residence and favourite retreat of Queen Marie of Romania was also used as a hospital during the Second World War until finally refurbished as a museum just seven years ago before being opened to the public. Several displays are devoted to the late queen and her belongings are amorously displayed alongside video footage. One of the finest rooms is her husband King Ferdinand’s former bedroom, with decorated furniture and ceramic fireplaces. Most of the squeaky-floors are furnished with bearskin and antique pieces. Some of the narrow staircases are really spooky.

 

This more of a British Tudor like castle offers a series of overwhelming views of the neighbouring rustic valleys until one reaches the couple of rooms dedicated to the Dracula legend on the top floor. Though the castle can easily be a tourist site by its own credibility without Count Dracula but the crowds, as expected, had jammed the entrance to those rooms.

 

The cover of the first edition, Stoker’s portrait, to photos of Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and all other film memorabilia displayed in the walls only echoed the unimaginable strength of a cult born out of some facts otherwise pure imagination.

 

If the novel had fascinated millions, then the later movies made out of it had also established and defined horror movie making and iconic Hollywood figures. Spanning for some 15 years and through a series of eight hammer horror movies, the actor Christopher Lee would have been ‘just another actor’ had he not played Dracula.  Given the character’s global popularity, it has been reported that as of 2015, an estimated 219 films have featured Dracula in their major roles – making it second only to Sherlock Holmes (223 films). Not only, has Dracula had a significant impact on the image of the vampire in popular culture, folklore, and legend but believe it for sure, it has confidently placed Romania in the global tourism industry too. The fact is – you won’t find a single travel book on Romania without elaborate details on Dracula sites on them. Here in Romania he lives in the minds and bodies of the people. Hence, he is ubiquitous.

 

The scene a vampire biting a beautiful woman’s neck, perhaps, suits no other country other than Romania. For this country is no short of beautiful women. Groomed at par with western world standards and with less arrogant attitude, they are seen in attractive shapes and complexions. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but be it dark or blonde hair, brown or blue eyes following a slim and slender physique – Count Dracula couldn’t have found a better place to hunt for his birds of prey.

 

Nonetheless , for those who have grown tired of my Dracula obsession, in reality, this part of the country is equally tempting for exploring medieval churches, painted monasteries and pristine unexploited landscapes. Opposed to demons, gods, deities and mythical figures, its history is filled with tales of heroic princes battling fierce Ottoman warriors, legends more of recent times as well as more realistic. Fascinatingly enough, the real life legend Vlad Tepes first fought against the Turkish Sultan and on the second occasion had sided with him to establish his rule.

 

My readers , by now , should have known  that this writer usually tends to follow the tracks of his favourite authors, landscapes , historical events and political upheavals and that’s why he now decides to climb down to Brasov for catching the next bus to Bucharest. Since Brasov is located at the foot of Mount Tampa, it offers several hiking trails that begin at the edge of the Old Town. With extra load on my back i went for the shortest route or the half mile long red triangle hike. Though Brasov (pronounced Bras’hov) offers dazzling Saxon, gothic, baroque and renaissance architecture, following a wealth of historical attractions, but my focus was on the capital city Bucharest. The bus leaving in half an hour would land me there in about three hours and only this time the room was booked in advance in one of the low-priced hotels in the city outskirts.

 

Succumbing to my juvenile temptation, and before even checking in the hotel i got into the local bus heading for one of my most wanted places in Bucharest – the Piata Revolutiei or the Revolution Square – it’s nothing medieval, has no links with Romanian art or literature but a very significant political landmark in the history of Romania. In particular, one newspaper photo, taken during the time of the 1989 revolution at the square has been forever etched in my mind.

 

It was a cold December morning at Dhaka. After the annual exams our school was closed. Like almost every morning, the old maid working at our house had placed the newspaper on top of the dining table. Having picked it up, my eyes were right away glued at the photo published at the front page of the then Bangladesh Observer, the brand newspaper of that time. Shot through a broken window the photo showed, a row of soviet made T-tanks with their crews on top, a scattered crowd perhaps a fraction of the protesters following a thin dark smoke coming out from a nearby damaged heritage building facing the square. It was taken against the backdrop of a cold and cloudy day. The lead title of the report said something similar to ‘Ceausescu is overthrown, faces trial, the revolution succeeds’. My earliest memory of a globally publicized revolution witnessed from several thousand miles away. The revolution and the dictator’s execution made the front page lead in almost all the Bengali dailies at that time. Unable to hide an unending curiosity, I was regularly following many of them. In one of them it was also reported that the dictator had never worn the same suit twice.

 

What an irony of fate, it’s the same square which marked the highest point in Ceausescu’s popularity, when he openly condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia and started pursuing a policy of independence from Kremlin in august 1968. And a little over two decades later, it was here where he was publicly condemned. The square is also the site of an old building at a corner which was once the seat of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party, and it was from this roof from where Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife fled in a white helicopter, only to be captured outside of the city a few hours later.

 

On the far side of the square stands the former Royal Palace, now home to the National Art Museum, the stunning Romanian Athenaeum and the historic Athenee Palace Hotel. At the south end of the square, pompously stands the small, but beautiful, Kretzulescu Church. May be the presence of divinity nearby worked as a pre-condition behind the revolution’s success. However, The Square gained worldwide notoriety when TV stations around the globe broadcasted Nicolae Ceausescu’s final moments in power on that fateful day of December 21, 1989.

 

Anyhow, the touristy Bucharest was not in my list to explore. The Romanian capital has been discovered, re-discovered, painted, sketched and written by countless. Furthermore, my travel sojourns are not meant to serve as travel guides too.

 

With a different plan in mind, i was set to discover the hidden gems of the country’s Deep South, much along the off beaten paths – its coastline near the Black Sea; Its eastern ports, the Danube delta and coastal towns; its beaches, discos and blondes coming together with sweeping views to the Black Sea. To me, they serve as Romania’s somewhat, tacit answer to West Europe’s French Riviera.

 

No matter what, first things first, the night in Bucharest will have to be lived to the full. Of all the wonderful things that Bucharest has to offer, nightlife is not the least of them. Dotted with trendy bars, Irish pubs to hedonistic clubs to live music clubs, almost all options are there. But for this writer, the most rewarding path to the heart of a country is not through architecture, history or its women but its gourmet dishes.

 

Despite good restaurants, food was a problem at Brasov, now it’s time to make up those missed meals. To put it accurately, at least I would say, there is nothing such as ‘100% authentic Romanian cuisine’. Most of the times the dishes are sumptuous but almost all of them are borrowed heavily from the neighbouring countries – Germanic, Turkish, Hungarian, Slavic and Greek. The same dish may vary in taste from one region to another. Moreover, i may be sometimes compromising with alcoholic drinks but not with pork and exactly right here the topic of comfort food comes. The country’s de facto national dish is called sarmale (occasionally seen on menus as sărmăluţe). These are cabbage rolls, stuffed with spiced pork and rice. All you need to do is act a little clever to convince the waiter to prepare it with either lamb, beef or chicken.

 

My recommendation, without even travelling to Hungary, would be the Hungarian Goulash soup.  A beef dish cooked with onions, Hungarian paprika spice, tomatoes and some green pepper, and the confusing part is the Hungarian goulash is neither a soup nor a stew, it’s somewhere in between though in Hungary it’s branded as a soup. A simple declaration about Romanian sweet dishes is – the country amazingly excels at strudels and cakes. Since so much have been said about food why should drinks be left aside, few are aware of that Romania too, has its own clear and colourless liquid with a kick, and it’s actually the country’s national beverage. This strong spirit is called Tuica. Essentially, Tuica is fermented and distilled plums. Regrettably this writer is not a connoisseur of wine or spirits but he knows for sure that almost all restaurants have half to one litre of red or white wine – aka house wine in their drinks menu.

 

Instead of recommending on what to do , where to go and what to see this writer earnestly desires his readers to look for what they want in this city of plenty to offer.

 

The night is getting deeper, I yet don’t know what coastal Romania kissing the Black Sea has to offer , but I am fast falling for this much less talked about jewel of a country. It is more than just romancing Romania…

 

To be continued

 

The writer is a freelance journalist

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