Road Tripping Romania: Part II

Road Tripping Romania: Part II

September 27, 2019 4 By Lane

Timisoara

My parents and brother arrived at Timisoara driving a shiny black Mercedes sport SUV; significantly shinier than most cars on the Romanian street. It was the pride and joy of the rental agency; the lure car they offer you when they try to get you to spend more money than you really need. We did need it to haul my bicycle around with us, but unfortunately we spent half a morning in futile struggle, willing the bike to shrink enough that it would fit into the hatchback trunk. Admitting defeat, we were fortunate to find a rack in a bike shop just below our apartment.

For the last four days I had been staying in a tiny hostel/flat in Timisoara and hiding from the 95 degree stagnant heat in the only business with air conditioning: McDonald’s. The town of Timisoara is an interesting blend of Hapsburgic buildings, rich cultural history, college town vibrancy, Communist oppression, and 200 year old buildings that give the old town its character, though the city is having trouble finding enough experts to renovate and restore many of these aging buildings.

Timisoara has a rich history dating back (so far as we know) to the Roman occupation of the ancient Dacian kingdom. Detailed historical accounts of the city begin with reconstruction following the Mongol invasion of Hungary and Poland in which the city was burned and pillaged. Charles I, king of Hungary rebuilt the fortress and made the city his residence to keep an eye on errant Hungarian Lords in what is now Transylvania. This brought a flood of Hungarian settlers and artisans to the region. By the mid 1300’s, Timisoara was an essential defensive fortress against the Muslim Ottoman Turkish Empire, withstanding multiple sieges before falling in 1551. It was also the site of the largest peasant revolution in Hungarian history.

After a period of military occupation, the Ottomans surrendered the city to the Hapsburg Imperial Armies in 1716. It was the Hapsburgs who built a massive fortress around the city’s citadel, of which one of seven bastions still remain, in addition to many of the citadel’s beautiful apartment blocks which make up the old town district today.

Timisoara and most of the surrounding Banat region was incorporated into the Kingdom of Romania in 1919 at the end of World War I.

In December, 1989, the city was shaken by mass protests against the communist government. On the 20th of the month, what would become known as the Romanian Anti-Communist Revolution which spread like wildfire from Timisoara to Arad, Bucharest, and others declared Timisoara the first Romanian city free from communism.

Unfortunately, they did not manage to purge their government of all dirty actors, and the country is still struggling with a conservative base which overwhelmingly votes election after election for a party and government rife with corruption and greed and which remains unsavory bedfellows with the Orthodox Catholic Church.

Deva

Leaving Timisoara, our first stop was to spend two days in the Deva region. One day to see the massive Corvin castle and another to visit two of Romania’s largest and most significant ancient archaeological sites: the Capital of Ancient Dacia and 40 km away, the capital of Roman Dacia.

The town of Deva was a truly unattractive city of crumbling communist era concrete apartment blocks. It did have one object of interest: a massive insulated pipe that ran all over town a few feet off the ground, arching up and over driveways in a comically inefficient manner. Whether it carried oil or steam was a matter of heated (or should I say heating) debate for days until a host informed us that it carried hot water from a spring near the city.

On the outskirts of Deva, we stumbled upon a massive settlement of “gypsy crime lord estates” according to Google. Huge cinder block stucco houses painted all manner of brilliant colors. They were roofed with polished tin shingles and shiny, embellished gutters with pointy bits and chains and every manner of gaudy excess even the plexiglass windows bulged in a style probably considered very impressive. The estates were surrounded by elaborate gates and fences, though many of the monstrosities remained unfinished, and the grounds around these were dirt streets and trash and impromptu scrap yards. From the internet we learned that certain groups of the Roma leave the country, amass wealth by sometimes less than scrupulous means, and return to build these elaborate displays of dominance without getting the buildings approved for construction. Now, the city is trying to get them demolished.

Roman and Dacian Ruins

The Dacian capital Sarmizegetusa Regia was located deep in a spur of the Carpathian Mountains, nestled in a tight, densely wooded valley. The massive stone blocks that made columns, foundations, and a double walled defensive barrier were hauled from a sandstone mine 60 km away. It was a special feeling to stand among the remnants of a civilization that ruled over 2000 years ago.

Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa was the Capital of Roman Dacia, located just 40km from the original capital. Some of the highlights of this sight included the remains of an amphitheater, four glass blowing furnaces, Roman thermal baths, and what was once a grand city center and forum. The icing on the cake of experiencing these archaeological sites was that there were very few other tourists there, so we could go at our own pace and let our imaginations fly, reconstructing what the magnificent cities must have looked like in their prime.

Alba Iulia

Entering the city of Alba Iulia, we drove through the same sprawl of concrete high rises as surround most larger Eastern European towns and cities. What makes Alba Iulia unique is that instead of having an older downtown district, it has a huge heptagonal star-shaped citadel.

Built in the 1700’s by the Hapsburg Empire on the site of a medieval fortress, the citadel’s walls form a 12km perimeter with a bastion at each of its seven corners. In addition to restaurants, museums, historic government buildings, and beautiful churches, the citadel also boasts St. Michael’s cathedral. The original church was constructed there in the 11th century, but like Timisoara, was destroyed by the pillaging Mongol Hordes. The current cathedral was built on the former’s foundation in the mid 13th century. It is very impressive in construction; entire composed of massive stone blocks, fitted with incredible accuracy. I was also impressed with the interior decorations, or lack thereof. It managed to feel elegant without half as much of the interior embellishments of most cathedrals and basilicas.

Also worth mentioning, the restaurant where we ate lunch (like a good bunch of tourists) was a remarkable circular room that was once the citadel’s powder magazine. It felt like being inside a brick donut; an analogy I’m sure everyone can relate to.

Salina Turda

The next destination on our roundabout route was the town of Turda. The guesthouse we stayed in was called The Daddy House. I’m just gonna leave that alone.

Off of an unassuming street of crumbling pavement lined with the standard village housing, there’s a large, shiny, L-shaped building butted up to a grassy hill behind it. We walk in and pay a woman sitting in a glass ticket booth. The rest of the large entrance room is conspicuously empty. Her colleague motions for us to follow, and he opens a man-door set into a comically large oak and steel door.

Before us a white tunnel stretches into infinity. It is the old access shaft to the Salina Turda salt mine. I didn’t Google any photos of this place before we went there, so I had no idea what we were walking into.

200 Leagues down the Franz Iosif Horizontal, the rough bricked tunnel gave way to a rectangular shaft through perfectly solid, shiny, nearly black salt. It was like walking through a black glacier made of obsidian.

The first gallery we came to was the Iosif mine. It’s a bell-shaped, vertical shaft where material was lifted and lowered via a rope and pulley system at the top of the bell. Because of this, it isn’t open to tourists, but if you yell from the balcony at the top of the bell, the shaft rings as if a thousand mountain dwarves with terrible timing are yelling back.

Back in the rectangular tunnel, water condensing on the ceiling or dripping through from above creates a rippling, wave-like texture along the salt walls where they have been dissolved and sculpted.

Next, we arrived at the massive winch system engine which hauled the material up from the bottom of the two bell galleries and deposited it in mine carts. By engine, I mean pure horsepower. Fun fact: when the miners were done with a horse, it would be replaced. Upon returning to the surface, the spent horses would promptly go blind from the sunlight.

Finally, the tunnel opened to the right to reveal a double staircase descending into the balcony of the bell-shaped Terezia Mine and the adjoined trapezoidal prism shaped Rudolph Mine. At the bottom of the Terezia bell, there is a pitch black lake with a small island at its center. If Gollum existed outside of the LOTR universe, this would be his home.

Adjacent to the Gollum shaft opened a vaulted chamber the likes of which neither words nor photos could describe without a pitiful loss in grandeur and magnificence. Near the ceiling, a wooden walkway supported by timbers slotted into the salt wall ran the perimeter to access a set of stairs on either side of the mine. From there, the ceiling slanted away to create a cathedral like space where light reflected among glistening salt faces and gossamer threads of salt hung down from the sloping faces like ghostly chandeliers.

I don’t believe I have ever been in a place that felt so removed from the realm of physical reality, so otherworldly.

Wooden Churches

Romania has a great many very old wooden churches. Some of these are painted all over inside with frescoes telling stories from the scriptures. There is a particularly high concentration of these churches in the Mare Mures region, so we spent a day finding a few of them.

Despite the region being famous for its wooden churches, it was actually one that we chanced upon days before which had the most intact and expansive frescoes. We stopped to check it out on a pure whim. The door was unlocked (unlike many we found after) and the interior bare except for the paintings and a single stone basin and pedestal.

In one of these churches, we encountered a tiny grandmotherly character who insisted on dressing my mom and I up in traditional outfits. There is no language barrier that copious smiling and gesticulating cannot overcome.

Into the Mountains

As we climbed further into the Carpathian Mountains, villages became even smaller and the transition from an agricultural to a traditionally logging community was distinctly evident. The subtle differences from one village to the next were so numerous, from carved wooden gates showing the stories and symbols of the family to elaborately and colorfully decorated houses, our heads were constantly on the swivel.

On our way south through the heart of the mountains, we came upon a stretch of road around a lake that was closed for construction. It was late afternoon, and we were already pushing the check-in time of our accommodation for the night. Instead of detouring many miles back the way we had come, we decided to take a smaller road through the hills on the other side of the lake.

We Google Streetviewed the road first to make sure it was paved for our precious rental car (it appeared to be). What we did not know when we chose this route was that we were about to traverse a track so dilapidated, so horrendously unmaintained, that for several hours we would all wish we had entered some special hell because it would have been more comfortable than riding over the gaping craters and chasms that covered every square inch of what was once a crudely paved goat track. We did arrive at our lodging for the night, though very late and we felt bad because the hosts met us there at 9pm, but they then had to drive 40km back to their own home.

Peles Castle

Bran Castle and Peles Castle

The final two castles on our Romania bucket list, Bran Castle and Peles Castle represent two opposing strategies for how to manage a significant tourist destination.

Bran Castle, known for it’s loose connection to the story of Dracula and his real life counterpart, Vlad the Impaler. While Vlad may have once been imprisoned at Bran Castle, people know Bran Castle as Dracula’s castle because it most closely resembles the castle described in the novel. The author never went to Romania himself, so he wrote Dracula’s story vaguely based upon what people told him about the country and Vlad the Impaler.

Bran Castle

Because of the notoriety Count Dracula afforded Bran Castle, thousands of tourists flock there every day. Some visitors report three hour long wait lines, and our experience of Bran Castle was of being shuffled along a pre-determined route through the castle, surrounded by a stifling press of sweaty, puffing tourists.

All around the castle and in the gift shop, chintzy Chinese-made Dracula themed souvenir shit was offered in heaps and mounds. Even inside the castle, there was a whole room devoted to Dracula themed sensational text boards instead of information about the actual history of the castle and the region under its protection.

Peles Castle

A couple of days after Bran, we visited Peles Castle. The contrast in crowd management and authenticity could not have been more marked. Peles Castle was built in the early 1900’s, so it is far younger then Bran or Corvin Castle. But being built in at that pivotal time in history, it boasts all the imposing stature of the older castles, while the interior is the most exquisitely opulent display of wealth and craftsmanship I have ever seen. Rooms where every wall is covered entirely with identical, hand carved wooden panels, beautiful tapestries, or masterful murals. Chandeliers of blown glass hang from the ceilings and marble columns add structural and artistic support.

Yet Peles Castle is not totally overrun with snot nosed children and half the population of China like Bran Castle is… why? Because, in my opinion, they haven’t created an artificial, click bait kind of attraction. They’ve further preserved Peles Castle by only allowing visitation inside as part of a guided tour. In this way, they’ve limited the number of people bumbling about inside, protected the art and artifacts, and made learning about the history of the castle, it’s people, and the area part of the experience of every person who chooses to visit.

The Transfagarasan Highway

In 2009, the British Top Gear show featured Romania’s Transfagarasan Highway, proclaiming it the greatest road in the world. The road was commissioned by Nicolae Ceausescu as a defensive route through the mountains in response to the 1968 Soviet invasion of the Czech Republic. Ceausescu thought that building the pass along the routes of a river or valley would make it vulnerable to the powerful Soviet forces, so he ordered the Romanian military to build it straight over the mountains. The official death toll at the end of its construction was 40, but it’s estimated that hundreds of young, inexperienced soldiers died; many of them because they hadn’t been properly trained in the use of blasting dynamite.

The final product, despite its cost, is a beautiful ribbon of asphalt twisting its way through alpine meadows and peaks that reminded me of the fjords of Norway. We made a picnic at an overlook point as shepherds herded their flocks across the green slopes. The only detractor from this pastoral experience was the copious amounts of toilet paper and refuse twenty feet away.

After lunch, we continued along the highway, descending back into the trees. It was now fairly late in the day and everyone was tired of being in the car. Then, out of the gentle lull of road noise, my mom’s voice filled the car with enough volume to split atoms and summon demons. It took my pierced brain a few moments to make sense of her outburst, but she had screamed, “THERE’S A BEAR!” And indeed, there was a bear directly ahead of us, sitting on its brown furry rump behind a concrete road barrier where the road curved to the left.

As we slowed to a stop beside the massive grizzly, it watched us with beady yet somber eyes. Then it started to sniff, testing the air to see if maybe we had some food in the car. Having satisfied our gawking and photographing quotas, we made a swift exit so as to avoid acquiring a furry passenger or getting rear-ended.

Bucharest Airport

Four days before my family was due to return home, I developed an illness of the stomach and a fever. This meant that I was particularly prone to carsickness during some of our longest days on the road as we hurried to check off the last few big items on my family’s Romania bucket list.

When we arrived at our lodging near the Bucharest airport two nights before their flight, we had grand plans to go look around the city and possibly even take a walking tour. However, we were all so exhausted from the previous two weeks that we elected to do nothing at all except return the rental car and watch Netflix.

My parents and brother called an Uber to take them to the airport at five in the morning on a Friday. I stayed at the rental until Sunday morning, then I pedaled off for Bulgaria, skirting Bucharest to avoid the terrible roads and dangerous traffic that I didn’t feel inspired enough to brave just to see some big old buildings much like the ones in Budapest or Prague.