Unlike most of my trips, I embarked on a trip to Romania in the midst of winter without any major preconceptions or a decent understanding about the country. Therefore, it was one of the few times where I boarded a plane without knowing at least 60% on what to expect when I get there. In the end, this action – or lack thereof was ultimately justified as I was pleasantly surprised and occasionally entertained because my expectations were often violated in a positive manner.
I understood that cities in communist states or were in a communist state tend to share common features in terms of city planning: gargantuan boulevards, homogenized less-than-colorful yet grand buildings, and often statues and monuments filling every other corner of the city. Bucharest fulfilled these criteria 75% of the time. For some reason I was constantly conjuring images Comrade Brezhnev singing the Soviet national anthem in my head as I explored Bucharest. I particularly found it hard to imagine if things really have changed ever since the Iron Curtain came tumbling down. Add to the fact that I was there in December, the whole atmosphere of Bucharest became rather surreal and for me, it became even more charming and interesting.
Going to the port town of Constanța that was supposed to be a happier and livelier city did not alter my perception by much. Located about 200 kilometers east of Bucharest, Constanța is the largest port town on the Black Sea. Again, because it was winter, the city was almost deserted, nearly deprived of any resemblance to a tourist hotspot. I once said that being in Constanța at that time was like being in the middle of an on-going zombie apocalypse. It was foggy, cloudy with small flurries of snow, and many locales lack any sign of human activity. Eeriness was a given, creepiness was starting to waltz in, and I cannot recall any other time on my travels where I felt out of place and a bit uncomfortable yet I still found it strangely peaceful. Herein lies the main reason which made that one-day trip out to the town at the end of the world that much memorable and fascinating. But Comrade Brezhnev was still calling for my name inside my head.
It was time for a change of scenery, and what better way to shrug Brezhnev aside than going out to the rural parts of Romania. Aside from its Soviet past, Romania has a long history of kings and emperors that made Romania home. Scattered amongst the Romanian countryside are palaces and castles with a history that spans many centuries.
The most famous of them all is Bran Castle as it is known around the Carpathians, or if you prefer: Dracula’s Castle as it is known in popular culture. Historical inconsistencies aside, the castle is supposedly where Vlad the Impaler mainly applied his trade of impaling invaders. To enjoy such an outrageous and fascinating story such as this, I voluntarily left any skepticism at the door and took in the castle as a geeked out person eager to put a face to the vampire stories.
Bran Castle is located on the hills of the Carpathian Mountains in the vicinity of Braşov. The castle’s locale is nothing short of amazing. It is surrounded by a thick vegetation of pines and sits on a minor cliff-side; a location worthy of the legend. I expected creepy and creepy was what I got. Looking out of a window in the upper levels of the castle out into the snow-covered mountains made it easy to imagine why –if it’s truly the case– this castle would inspire people to write dark proses about dark matters. Brezhnev is out and Vlad with his handlebar mustache is now calling out in my head.
Another prominent castle is Peleș Castle. Situated between Transylvania and Wallachia, the castle was built in 1883 by King Carol I of Romania. The building itself is Neo-Renaissance in style with hints of Neo-Gothic and a bit of Anglo-Saxon.
Peleș Castle is perched on a hill with a backdrop of magnificent mountain scenery. In winter, the word ‘stunning’ doesn’t even come close to describe the view of the white-draped castle. It was like being in a Gothic novel where the main characters weren’t able to reach the outside world due to the heavy snowfall in which unexplained occurrences might be involved.
Depending on your state of mind, you might feel either indifferent, have the urge to book your tickets, or officially label Romania as the last place on Earth you’d visit. If it wasn’t clear before, I’m not slighting Romania at the least. The main draw of Romania for me was its history behind the Iron Curtain because it was the first proper satellite Soviet state that I have visited. I’ve always been enamored by radical changes of governments and Romania is a prime example of how a Stalinist state transitioned into a capitalist democracy. Remnants of its past is still evident but it was interesting to see for myself how things have changed – if at all.
One of the more memorable moments during my trip is having lunch inside an IKEA in a gigantic strip mall in Bucharest. Without context this may raise eyebrows may illicit judgmental glares but it was because of this particular experience that I was able to gauge just how far the country has transitioned nearly 30 years removed from the revolution. It just adds another small piece to the puzzle of the homogeneity of countries worldwide. Combined with the country’s rich history and unique upbringing, it gives Romania a distinct characteristic that differentiates itself. And that’s one of the inalienable essences of travel: experiencing familiar things through a different communal construct. That there is more than a good enough reason to travel to Romania.
Words and Photos by Hario Priambodho