In the unbearable lightness of leaving Istanbul behind, we set out one evening by train. Even though we had no wings, we felt as free as birds as we rattled over first the Meriç (Maritza) into Bulgaria, and many hours later crossed the Danube into Romania. From Bucharest, we had planned to travel northwards by train again over the Transylvanian Alps to Sighisoara, said to be the birthplace of the Wallachian Prince Vlad Tepes, but Bucharest held us enthralled for much longer than we had intended. The city reminded us of Istanbul: weary but still smiling a welcome. While we patted the street dogs, wandered the streets, went in and out of the magnificent stone buildings, explored 18th-century churches, and relaxed in the cafés and restaurants, the city told its story. Its golden age was at the beginning of the 1900s, a time when Romania’s culture, art, and architecture were inspired by France. The architects of Bucharest dressed the city in Paris fashions, with broad tree-lined boulevards, neoclassical buildings, elegant parks adorned with lakes, and even a triumphal arch.
Bucharest remained the Paris of the Balkans until the end of the 1930s, but since then the city has been torn by a succession of disasters and upheavals, beginning with the bombing raids of World War II and the earthquake of 1940. In 1977 came another violent earthquake, and in the 1980s the southern part of Bucharest was sacrificed to Ceasescu’s dream of creating an imposing Socialist capital. The old buildings were swept away to make way for new roads and modern buildings.
The Parliamentary Palace, known in the Communist era as the House of the People, is a building of crushing immensity, designed as a show of strength against the West. Maps in hand, we set out from Bucharest’s main train station, the Gara de Nord. Victoriei Street promised to lead us to the city center. It kept its promise, and after a short walk and a break for coffee, we found ourselves in Revolution Square (Piata Revolutiei), one of the principal witnesses of the 1989 revolution.
Monuments erected to those who lost their lives in the revolution, the former building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the Romanian Athenaeum, home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Republican Palace which houses the National Art Museum are all in this square. To the west of the Republican Palace are the 19th-century Cismigu Gardens, Bucharest’s oldest park. Then, mingling with the crowds rushing about their daily business, we headed south into the heart of the old city.
What delighted us most of all were the small churches hidden like surprise gifts between ornate historic buildings and tall apartment blocks. We still remember with affection the tiny Church of Stavropoleos dating from 1724 and now under UNESCO protection. On Lipscani Street, which is open to pedestrians only, we might almost have been back in Istanbul. To right and left were shops selling clothes, fabrics, wedding dresses, and books, and the pavements were thronged with street sellers.
On our way to Bucharest, seated in the narrow compartment of the train, we had dreamed of staying at Hanul Lui Manuc, a 19th-century inn used by merchants, and today a hotel and restaurant.
On the last day, we went there for lunch in its large courtyard. This was a somewhat hurried meal because the train that would take us to Transylvania was waiting at the platform in the Gara de Nord.
Again we felt the exhilaration of traveling to new places. The train carried us higher and higher into the Transylvanian Alps, and when it halted at Sinaia surrounded by forest-clad hills we suddenly decided to stop off and catch a later train. A short walk from the station took us to the Sinaia Monastery and Peles Castle, both of which were enchanting. The 17th-century monastery was once a refuge for the monks living in the forested Bucegi Mountains, and Peles Castle, with its pointed towers rising above the trees, seemed to come straight out of the world of fairytale. The castle was originally built as a summer residence for King Carol I in the late 19th century.
From Sinaia, we continued on to the medieval town of Brasov, where the first sight we visited was the 15th-century Gothic-style Black Church, containing a priceless collection of 17th and 18th-century Turkish carpets. The history of Bran, 30 kilometers southwest of Brasov also has many historical associations with the Turks. Bran Castle, or Dracula’s Castle, as it is often known, was originally constructed in the 14th century to defend the mountain pass against the Turks.
The Walachian Prince Vlad Tepes, on whom the 19th century English writer Bram Stoker based his character, the vampire Count Dracula, in reality only stayed in this castle for a few days. Legends about Dracula abound. It is said for instance that he was born in Sighisoara, but there is no historical evidence for this. The walls of this medieval city, also on the UNESCO world heritage list, enclose two-storey stone houses, a 14th-century clock tower, churches, and a small square shaded by trees.
Life here is in tranquil contrast to Bucharest, of which we were reminded that evening by pictures on the television news. The old people sitting beside us seemed to read our thoughts as they commented, ‘Bucharest is a large city.’ ‘So is Istanbul,’ we replied.