Sunday, March 23, 2014

Romania: Bucharest, Brașov and Timișoara

On March 14th, we left Nessebar and started the 240 mile drive towards Bucharest, Romania. The first 25 miles were really slow going on roads that were reminiscent of Albania. Driving 20 miles on the pothole-ridden tertiary road added an extra hour to our drive.
A sample of the potholes we had to navigate on our drive towards the Bulgaria-Romania border.
A snapshot of the countryside driving towards Romania. Lots of green fields, farmland and not much else.
The horse-drawn cart is still a popular mode of transport.
And more green fields.
We eventually reached the Giurgiu–Ruse Bridge aka the Danube Bridge or Friendship Bridge (the name during Soviet times), which we needed to cross in order to reach the Romanian border. 
Waiting to cross the bridge and go through the Romanian border control.
A detail of the Danube Bridge: It was designed by Soviet engineers V. Andreev and N. Rudomazin and opened in 1954. The star of Russia is a prominent feature on the lights.
We crossed the Danube River which is the EU's longest river. It originates at the town of Donaueschingen (Black Forest in Germany) and travels 2,872 km, emptying into the Black Sea via the Danube Delta in Romania and Ukraine. The river passes through or touches the borders of ten countries: Romania, Hungary, Serbia, Austria, Germany, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Croatia, Ukraine and Moldova.
Once Bulgaria and Romania are accepted into the Schengen Treaty, there won't be anymore border control. We were glad the countries hadn't been accepted yet otherwise we'd never have visited Romania.
Driving into Romania we saw a number of buildings in disrepair and my first impressions of Bucharest were of disappointment. With Romania on the edge of being accepted into the Schengen Treaty, I was expecting to see buildings and infrastructure in better shape. We found our apartment and it was probably the worst shape of any apartment we'd stayed in on this trip. It really was like a hostel only we rented the whole hostel to ourselves. (It was the priciest hostel I'd resided in at $110/night.) On further thought, it reminded me of a train station (similar tile work) with comparable cleanliness. The bedroom doors had locks but there was no lock on the door to the apartment itself. We would just have to go to bed that night in good faith that all would be well.

Once settled, we set out to find an ATM and some food. Walking along the streets, I noticed many of the buildings were just crumbling and I don't think any building had been washed, ever. I was grateful that it wasn't raining because that would bring this environment to a whole new level of "depressing".
While walking towards the center of town, Sarah almost walked right into this hole. Of all the potential walking hazards in Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey, this one in Bucharest was the grandaddy of them all.
Look what was parked right near the hole Sarah encountered? A hearse with a url posted on it that one can easily contact. Handy!
We walked blocks without finding a bank or restaurant. Eventually we came to the main train station (reminded me of our apartment) and Vince found an ATM that successfully gave us some cash. Paul spotted a Subway restaurant at the train station and suggested we just eat there, so that's what we did. We weren't off to a great start eating at a train station but it kind of fit with our hostel-like accommodations.
At the train station, I noticed this woman mopping the entrance walkway. I thought, "Man, this effort was like a drop in the ocean of what needed to be done."
After our Subway dinner, which was fine (the upside was we knew what we were getting), we walked back to our apartment. That's when I noticed the street on which the apartment was located.
We were on Transylvania Street. Perfect.
On March 15th, we thankfully woke to a sunny day. I probably would have suggested we pack up and leave if it was raining; my first impressions of Bucharest were that depressing. But we were in luck weather-wise and I was ready to find some of the highlights of this capital city and learn a bit more about its history.

Our host recommended that we see the Palace of Parliament and so that's to where we headed first. We soon had the impression that Bucharest is a bit like Washington, DC in the sense that one walks miles in order to get from A to B; the buildings and many of the newer avenues are on such a grand scale, it can be a mile just to walk a couple blocks.

Our Transylvania Street apartment was just north of the Cișmigiu Gardens which we had to walk through in order to reach the Palace of Parliament. The park contained a couple of playgrounds that were just packed with kids and of course our own children had to try out the equipment.
Cișmigiu Gardens was first developed in 1847 and is the oldest public garden in Bucharest. Highlights of the 17 hectare garden include the Roman Garden, laid out in the style of ancient Rome, busts of Romania's most famous writers, the lake, which can be explored by rowing a boat in summer or skating upon during the winter, and Ion Jalea's French Memorial which commemorates those French troops killed on Romanian territory during World War I.
We eventually pulled the kids away from the park and proceeded toward the Palace of Parliament, stopping for some of the worst fast-food we've ever had.
Crossing over the Dâmbovița River.
We stopped at this enormous play structure (fitting size next to the Palace of Parliament) to finish our dreadful lunch while the kids played for a bit.
We finally reached the visitor's entrance to the Palace of Parliament where I spoke with a woman at the information desk. She informed us that we need to have our passports with us in order to join a tour. We had left those back at the apartment and offered up our driver's licenses. Those weren't good enough. I guess the Parliament figures people might walk away from their driver's license but not their passports. I left a little annoyed at this policy because it meant we'd have to return the next day.

We left the Palace of Parliament visitor's center and started walking around the outer walls of the Palace of Parliament in order to reach the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is located in a section of the Palace of Parliament. We walked for miles, literally. One area that we walked by had an enormous construction project underway. I since learned it is for the Cathedral for the Salvation of Romanian People which is intended to be the largest Orthodox church in the world, and amongst the largest church buildings in the world. My thoughts on this? Stop it Bucharest. Just stop it. You can't maintain what you've got. Buildings are crumbling and have never been washed since construction. Entrances to key buildings are in disrepair. First impressions are bad impressions. Get a grip and reign in these projects!

I'm not a huge fan of contemporary art; mostly because I don't think the same effort goes into contemporary works today as what went into an impressionist painting or a Van Dyck painting or a Rodin sculpture, for example. But I still occasionally give contemporary art a try because one out of every hundred pieces I see, does hit it out of the park. On the ground floor were a number of exhibits by Mircea Cantor and one of those fit into the home run category. He had painstakingly created numerous small military jets out of metal cans (soda cans or oil cans?), each with it's own fish hook attached. They were all hung as if they were flying, or swimming, below a fish net that was set like it was about to trap the tiny planes. Vince and I thought the message related to how we are all lured and trapped by both militarism and consumerism. It was thought-provoking and meaningful. This was our reaction; maybe the artist didn't intend this interpretation at all. I think the point is, it engaged us. Mircea Cantor is a Romanian-born artist who employs readymade objects; his choice of media is diverse, in that he has employed video, animation, sculpture, drawing, painting and installation art in his work.
The crumbling driveway and broken marble steps leading up to the museum doesn't give a good first impression.
National Museum of Contemporary Art: The museum here was inaugurated in 2004.
The best part of the National Museum of Contemporary Art was this rooftop terrace. Having a drink here, overlooking the city, on a beautiful day was sweet.
After leaving the National Museum of Contemporary Art, we walked up the Boulevard Unirii towards the old town.
This was the walkway around the outer walls of the Palace of Parliament. We encountered another walking hazard.
A look down the grand Boulevard Unirii: This was Communist Romania's answer to Paris's Avenue des Champs-Elysees. It has a length of 3,500 meters and is half a meter wider than the Champs-Elysees (Take that France.) Bucharest really could take some notes from the Istanbul (and Paris) parks management and spruce up these boulevards.
Building from the early 20th century sadly crumbling.
Old town pedestrian area.
The old town is filled with restaurants, pubs and bars, some of which have their own catchy slogans.
There are still some architectural gems in old town.
National Museum of Romanian History.
A cafe that reflects the aspirations of the country. Lucky for us, Romania hadn't been accepted into the Schengen Treaty yet.
Kretzulescu Church: The church was commissioned in 1720–1722 by the boyar Iordache Crețulescu and his wife Safta, a daughter of Wallachian ruler Constantin Brâncoveanu. In the early days of the Communist regime, Kretzulescu Church was slated for demolition, but was saved due to efforts of architects such as Henriette Delavrancea-Gibory. Some churches in the city were actually moved in order to save them.
That evening, as we walked back through the Cișmigiu Gardens and the kids hit the playgrounds again, we decided to eat at the park restaurant. It was quite okay and was a pleasant setting to end the day.
The view from our table of James and Sarah in the empty lake that surrounds the restaurant. In the summer months, this lake is filled with water and would make a very pretty view.
On March 15th, we woke up to another beautiful day and decided to try to take the Free City (walking) Tour that was recommended by our apartment host. I estimated that it would take about 30 minutes to walk to the starting point on Piata Unirii so we all had to be out the door at 10:25. Despite several warnings of "gotta leave in 20 minutes," "gotta leave in 12 minutes", etc. We didn't manage getting out of the door until 10:35. Despite walking as fast as we could, at about 10:50 we realized we wouldn't make it.

So we had to turn to "plan b" which was to continue on to the Palace of Parliament and hopefully take a tour. I had our passports and so we were prepared. When we arrived we spoke to the man at the information desk who said the next tour was booked up and they wouldn't have an opening for another hour or so. He asked if we'd like to reserve 5 spots in an afternoon tour. "We could reserve a tour?" (Why didn't the woman at the information desk tell me that yesterday?) We decided not to wait around today but to book a tour for 15:00 the next day and left. So far, two strikes on our Palace of Parliament efforts.When descending down the steps from the entrance, little Sarah managed to dislodge and break one of the marble tiles merely by stepping on it.
Good as new. Well, not really.
So we then had to turn to "plan c" which was to take the metro up to the Village Museum which was pretty highly recommended on TripAdvisor. The Village Museum features a collection of 50 buildings representing the history and design of Romania's rural architecture. Steep-roofed peasant homes, thatched barns, log cabins, churches and watermills from all regions of the country were taken apart, shipped to the museum and rebuilt in order to recreate the village setting. With its start in 1936, this is the largest outdoor museum in Europe and covers some 30 acres on the shores of Lake Herastrau in Herestrau Park.
House built in 1815 from the Salciua de Jos village which is located in the Apuseni Mountains.
Interior of the Salciua house with typical furnishings.
A typical "high building" of rich peasants from the north part of Gorj county (circa 1800).
While visiting the Village Museum, Vincent's allergies became overwhelming and he had to leave us. So the kids and I continued on our own.
A Draghiceni half-buried house (circa 1900): This type of housing was used up through the mid-20th century in southern Oltenia mainly due to local climate conditions but also to economic and historical ones.
Early 19th-century windmill used for grinding grain. It was brought to the museum from the Sarichioi village which is situated on the Razelm lakeside.
After leaving the Village Museum, the kids and I walked back to Herestrau Park, as I promised a bit of time at one of the many playgrounds there.
We walked by Bucharest's has own Arc de Triomphe (Arcul de Triumf). Initially built of wood in 1922 to honor the bravery of Romanian soldiers who fought in World War I, the arc was finished in Deva granite in 1936. It was designed by the architect Petre Antonescu. The arc is in the middle size-wise of its Paris inspirations; it stands 85 feet high whereas the Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile is 164 feet high and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel is 63 feet high. An interior staircase allows visitors to climb to the top for a panoramic view of the city. The sculptures decorating the structure were created by leading Romanian artists, including Ion Jalea, Constantin Medrea and Constantin Baraschi.
This pendulum swing was hands-down one of the best pieces of playground equipment the kids had ever seen. It worked like a teeter-totter but could swing 360 degrees. It was fun; even I gave it a try.
This was another neat structure; it was a swing set arranged in a circle which allowed for more interactive swinging. And yes, the kids confirmed that if one timed it right one could kick the feet of others swinging into the center.
Testing and validating the hypothesis.
After leaving Herestrau Park, we needed to march on and get to the Museum of the Romanian Peasant before it closed. We walked down Bulevardul Aviatorilor which is really "embassy row". En route we noticed a big crowd and I was initially concerned that it might be a demonstration concerning Crimea. But getting closer we saw a lot of balloons and I concluded it couldn't be a serious demonstration with balloons in play.
We discovered that the Irish in Romania celebrate St Patrick's Day in the similar off-beat ways as their ex-pat colleagues in North America.
We reached the museum and went in. There was some information available in English but it really didn't catch the kids' interest and I was hard-pressed to spend too much time there. The museum contains a collection of textiles (especially costumes), icons, ceramics, and other artifacts of Romanian peasant life. Items are laid out or on display in a traditional sense and, with the help of a laminated information card, one can garner a few details.
A wooden church from the Mintia village in Transylvania.
After leaving the museum, we returned to our apartment and collected Vincent for dinner. I'd spotted a pub which I thought would be a good dinner place given the Irish in Bucharest were celebrating St Patrick's Day.
The pub handed the kids these fun Guinness hats. They weren't drinking any Guinness that night but got into the spirit of the occasion anyway.
On March 17th, we were determined to make it to the Free City Tour that started at 11am. We left the apartment at 10:15 and took the metro to Plata Unirii (Union Square). We arrived out of the metro at about 12 minutes before 11:00 but couldn't find a cross walk to get to the Unirii Park in the center of the square. It was another strike against the city planners.
The platform at Plata Romana was only just over a meter wide. Clearly the architects didn't think anyone much would use this metro stop.
Unirii Park where the tour began: The enormous fountains have been drained for winter but will be refilled sometime during the spring. Many fountain tiles were broken and scattered around. The Palace of Parliament is way off in the distance.
We then walked through what remains of Bucharest's old town. The old town developed through the gathering of guilds or merchants dealing certain types of products on certain streets, hence the names of these streets include: Lipscani (merchants coming from Leipzig), Gabroveni (merchants coming from Gabrovo, with their own inn), Șelari (merchants trading horse saddles), Șepcari (hat makers), Căldărari (bucket makers) and Zarafi (bankers, cash dealers).
The Curtea Veche Church, built in 1559, is Bucharest’s oldest church.
Inerior of the Curtea Veche Church: Nothing remains of the original building. The church deteriorated over the years due to Turkish raids and fires. Restoration works however in 1928 and 1935 brought it back close to its former self.
The historic Manuc Inn that was built in 1808. Great efforts have been taken to restore this hotel and two on-site restaurants.
Curtea Veche (The Old Court): In this area archaeological diggings have uncovered the existence of some 6th – 7th century cottages, as well as remains of a 14th century fortress. The fortress was about 160 sq. m. wide and also had a tower. In the times of Vlad the Impaler a new fortress was built, in a rectangular shape and of over 600 sq. meters in shape, with many cellars. In the end of the 15th century, the fortress was almost 1000 sq. meters wide, with the followers of Vlad the Impaler continuing his work (Basarab IV cel Tânăr (aka "Basarab the Young" or the "Little Imapler") and Mircea the Shepherd); the whole structure was further developed during the rule of Matei Basarab (1632-1654) and Constantin Brâncoveanu (1688-1714).
This is Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (1431–1476/77). The statue sits in front of the Curtea Veche (the Old Princely Court). Vlad III is revered as somewhat of a folk hero in Romania as well as other parts of Europe for his protection of the Romanian population from the Ottomans north and south of the Danube. He was posthumously dubbed Vlad the Impaler for his practice of impaling his enemies. As the tales go, he was very good at impaling someone without hitting any vital organs and the challenge/fun was that they'd live 48 hours or longer. Vlad III together with his father, Vlad II Dracul (Vlad the Dragon), were the inspiration to Bram Stoker's vampire, Count Dracula.
The Bucharest coat of arms was added to these new man-hole covers until the orthodox church got wind of it. On the breast of the eagle is an image of the image of Saint Dimitrie Basarabov. The leaders of the church were horrified that people could be walking over the Saint (not to mention adorning manhole covers that enclose the sewer system). As a result, there aren't many of these around. Perhaps uncertain of their judgment, the city management haven't added the Bucharest coat of arms on much else in the city.
Stavropoleos Monastery: The eastern orthodox church was built in 1724 at the insistence of a Greek monk, Ioanikie Stratonikeas. It is now a monastery run by seven nuns. It was built in the Brâncovenesc style which is a synthesis between the Byzantine, Ottoman, late Renaissance and Baroque architecture styles. The courtyard outside (peaceful and beautiful on a sunny afternoon) has a collection of tombstones and other church pieces, dating from the 18th century, which were rescued and saved after the communists destroyed so many religious sites.
The painted domes were restored at the beginning of the 20th century.
 After leaving the old town, we walked up the Calea Victoriei (Victoria Avenue).
CEC (Romanian state-owned bank) Palace opened as the bank's headquarters in 1900.
The National Museum of Romanian History is located on Calea Victoriei. It contains Romanian historical artifacts from prehistoric to modern times. Permanent displays include a plaster cast of the entire Trajan's Column (the original is located in Rome), the Romanian Crown Jewels and the Pietroasele treasure (late fourth-century gold Gothic treasure). Here, Sarah is standing by the statue of a naked Trajan and the She-wolf. The statue has received much criticism from the public. In hindsight, we should have brought Molly and photographed her being held in the same manner as the she-wolf.
Apparently this is the best spot in Bucharest to smoke a hookah.
National Military Palace was officially inaugurated in 1923.
Bucharest's National Theatre stood next to the city's telecommunications building. In WWII, the Germans missed the telecommunications building and bombed the theatre instead. Later, the front facade of the National Theatre was reconstructed as a reminder of what once stood there.
The tour ended at the Revolutionary Square. In August 1968 and December 1989, the square was the site of two mass meetings which represented the highest and lowest points of Ceaușescu's regime. Ceausescu's speech of August 21, 1968 marked the peak of Ceaușescu's popularity, when he openly condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union and started pursuing a policy of independence from the Kremlin. Ceausescu's final speech in 1989 was meant to emulate the 1968 assembly and was presented by the official media as a "spontaneous movement of support for Ceaușescu", but erupted in the popular revolt that led to the end of the Ceaușescu's regime.
The balcony of the Central Committee Building where Nicolae Ceaușescu was giving a speech on December 21, 1989. Eight minutes into his speech, sudden movements from the outskirts of the massed assembly, combined with the sound of fireworks or guns, caused the assembly to break into chaos. Bullhorns then began to spread the news that the Securitate was firing on the crowd and that a "revolution" was unfolding. Ceaușescu and his wife were rushed off in a panic. Four days later, Ceaușescu and his wife were tried and convicted for genocide and other crimes and were sentenced to death by firing squad which occurred that same day.
Statue of King Carol, the first king of modern Romania: The communists melted down the original statue but after the fall of the communist regime, the people wanted to reinstate the statue. Born Karl Eitel Friedrich Zephyrinus Ludwig of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen in Sigmaringen in southern Germany in 1839, Karl was an officer in the Prussian army until being invited by the Romanian politician Ion Bratianu in 1866 to become Romania’s king. Romania’s own royal, the authoritarian Prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza, had been exiled after falling out with the country’s politicians and most powerful families earlier in 1866. Carol reigned for 48 years until his death in 1916.
The Romanian Athenaeum: Opened in 1888, the building serves as a concert hall. If you happen to be in Bucharest during an event at the Athenaeum, it would be worth your while to attend to see the interior. The combined visual and musical experience may well be the highlight of your visit.
After leaving our tour group, we rushed over to La Mama restaurant for a quick bite. We then had to run to the metro to get Palace of Parliament before 15:00 and our tour.

Nicolae Ceausescu built the Palace of Parliament, naming it the People's House (Casa Poporului). Ceausescu chose 28 year old, Anca Petrescu as the chief architect and she led a team of 700 architects and 20,000 builders who worked 3 shifts, 24/7, to build it. The building was more or less completed in 1997 but, in my opinion, there's a whole lot of maintenance which now needs attention. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed to make way for the building, equating to the area the size of Venice. Among that which was lost were churches, synagogues and valuable historic constructions. (Bucharest was at one time referred to as "Little Paris".) 40,000 people were displaced and forced to move to newly constructed communist blocks of flats of a poor quality.
The Palace of the Parliament measures 270 m by 240 m, 86 m high, and 92 m under ground. It has 1,100 rooms and is 12 stories tall, with four additional underground levels currently available and in use, with another four in different stages of completion. The building has a floor area of 360,000 square meters, setting the world record for the largest administrative building (for civilian use*); it's the second largest, compared to the Pentagon. The underground parking has enough space for 20,000 cars. The Palace of Parliament is also the world's heaviest building and was the most expensive administrative building in the world to build, costing an estimated 4 billion USD (2006).
Tickets for the "standard tour" were 25 lei. It cost 30 lei for the privilege of taking photos of the interior so I passed but, in retrospective, I wish I had. I added the link to another visitor's photos of the interior of the Palace posted on the internet to give readers a glimpse, if interested; we only saw 4% of the building and the rooms were absolutely massive...and grand. It was actually pretty appalling, given the poor standard of living most Romanians faced while so much money was spent on what was essentially a monument to Ceaușescu. Of course there have been many rulers who've done similar things and changed the face of cities, rather than improving the life of their average citizen/subject. Ceaușescu's work is only 30 years old so the sting is still there. It's also harder to admire because the powers that be don't seem to be able to maintain what they've now got. These newer buildings are starting to fall a part. There's graffiti that needs to be cleaned up. The buildings themselves need to be cleaned. Landscaping is almost non-existent.
The view off one of the balconies at the Palace of the Parliament: Directly ahead is Piața Constituției (Constitution Square). Beyond that one can see Boulevard Unirii (Bucharest's version of the Champs-Élysées) plus the buildings that line it built under Ceaușescu. Not all of these apartment and office buildings were completed however. In some cases, just the facades facing the Boulevard Unirii were finished but there's nothing built behind them.
Looking down Boulevard Libertății (Liberty).
When we finished the tour, we spent some time at the playground at Izvor Park. The kids had weathered 3.5 hours of walking tours and needed time to run around.
Swing battles. Good times.
After some time at the playground, we decided to walk to the old town for dinner at the Hanul Hanuc  restaurant. We thought it would be nice to have our last meal at a restaurant with some historical charm.
Look through the grime and there are some buildings with beautiful detail.
Entering the old town, there are more buildings with unique detail but which need some TLC.
Ending the Bucharest stay with some local fare: Sarmale (cabbage rolls) with polenta. Good ol' comfort food.
On March 18th, we left Bucharest and drove 191 km north to Brașov, Romania.
A snap of the countryside en route to Brașov. The Carpathian mountains can be seen in the distance.
We stopped along the way at a roadside restaurant and had traditional Romanian/Balkan fare. Most of us had beef soup, laced with cabbage of course. Before continuing on our drive, we had to use the facilities, where we observed this most comprehensive set of instructions for washing hands.
If you've ever wondered while washing your hands if you are doing it correctly, here's the visual aid for you!
We reached Brașov and our next apartment during mid-afternoon. Brașov has a population of just over 253,000 and is Romania's 7th largest city. Records of Brașov go back as far as 1235 AD, when it was under the name, Corona (meaning Crown) but the oldest traces of human activity and settlements in Brașov date back to the Neolithic age (about 9500 BC). From 1950 to 1960, during part of the Communist period, the city was called Orașul Stalin (Stalin City) after the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. Thank goodness, the Communists didn't get around to demolishing Brașov's old town; the details on many of the buildings are lovely.
On our way to walk through the Schei Gate: The gate seen today was built in 1827 and replaced the old Schei Gate which was heavily damaged from fires.  During the Saxon rule of the 13th to 17th century, Romanians were forbidden from owning property inside the fortress walls and so they settled outside the walls in the neighborhood named Schei. Romanians could only enter the town at certain times and had to pay a toll at the gate for the privilege of selling their produce inside the citadel.
Brasov Synagogue was built in 1901.
Handsome refurbished buildings surround the Council Square (Piata Sfatului) which is the heart of the old medieval Brașov. What a contrast to Bucharest. The imposing structure behind the colorful buildings is The Black Church; it is Brașov's most prominent landmark and is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Romania.
In the center of the Council Square lies the Council House, built in 1420. The building used to serve as Brașov's city hall; today it houses Brașov's Historical Museum. The exhibits tell the history of the Saxon guilds, who dominated Brașov during medieval times. On top of the building sits the Trumpeter's Tower which was once a watchtower for approaching barbarians.
Beautifully detailed shops sit along Strada Republicii which is Brașov's main pedestrian thoroughfare, leading away from the Council Square towards Bulevardul Eroilor.
More of Strada Republicii.
On March 19th, we had a lot of ground to cover as we were only staying one full day in the area. We decided to take a quick look at the Black Church, which was closed when we went by the previous evening. We then wanted to drive to see Peles Castle, Pelisor Castle, the Sinaia Monastery and, if we had time, drive to Bran Castle.
A true center of Transylvanian Protestantism, the Black Church was built between 1383 and 1477. In 1689 the church was nearly destroyed by a great fire caused by the Austrian army that occupied Brașov. It was then that the church was named the Black Church from its blackened walls. The church has a beautiful collection of Turkish rugs from the 17th and 18th centuries. They were received as gifts from local merchants who returned from trips to the Ottoman lands. Another impressive feature is the church's organ, built by Buchholz of Berlin in 1839. If we were here during the summer, we could have attended one of the many organ concerts held here.
The boys hanging out in Strada Sforii (Rope Street) which claims to be "one of the narrowest" streets in Europe. Having traveled extensively, we know it's not the narrowest as it can't beat Pusti Me Da Prodjem (Let Me Pass street) in Split, Croatia which we knew first hand was narrower.
We then got in the Prius and started the drive to Peleș Castle in Sinaia.
Driving south to Sinaia with the Bucegi Mountains in the distance.
Peleș Castle was built by King Carol I who, we learned back in Bucharest, was invited in 1866 to become Romania’s king after Prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza had been exiled. As a quick history lesson, King Carol and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, had only one child who died at age 4. So in 1889, King Carol's nephew, Ferdinand Viktor Albert Meinrad of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (later shortened simply to Hohenzollern) became the heir-presumptive to the throne. Ferdinand married Princess Marie of Edinburgh and they had 6 children. Ferdinand succeeded Carol I, when he died in 1914, and was King until his own death in 1927. Ferdinand was succeeded by his grandson, Michael I. In 1944, Michael initiated a coup d'etat against Ion Antonescu (Romanian Prime Minister/dictator) which resulted in quickly switching alliances with Germany to aligning with the Allies. Some historians believe this helped shorted WWII by 6 months, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. In December 1947, the Communists forced Michael to abdicate and they announced permanent abolition of the monarchy. The Communists later stripped Michael of his Romanian citizenship. It wasn't until 1997, after Iliescu's defeat by Emil Constantinescu, that the Romanian government restored Michael's citizenship and again allowed him to visit the country.
The foundation was laid for Peleș Castle on 22 August 1873 and the castle was officially inaugurated in October 1883. Several auxiliary buildings were built simultaneously with the castle: The guards' chambers, the Economat Building, the Foişor hunting lodge, the royal stables, and a power plant. Peleș became the world's first castle fully powered by locally produced electricity. The king wanted a grand palatial alpine villa combining different features of classic European styles, mostly following Italian elegance and German aesthetics along Renaissance lines.
After King Michael's forced abdication in 1947, the Communist regime seized all royal property, including the Peleș Estate. The castle was opened as a tourist attraction for a short time. It also served as a recreation and resting place for Romanian cultural personalities. The castle was declared a museum in 1953. Nicolae Ceausescu closed the entire estate between 1975 and 1990, during the last years of the Communist regime. The area was declared a "State Protocol Interest Area", and the only persons permitted on the property were maintenance and military personnel. Ceauşescu did not like the castle very much and rarely visited. After the December 1989 Revolution, Peleş and Pelişor Castle were re-established as heritage sites and opened to the public.
I opted not to pay for the privilege of taking photographs of the interior (30 lei) but I would say that if you are one who wants to know whether it's worth it, I would say it is. The interior of Peles Castle is one of the most beautiful and intricately detailed historic buildings I'd visited, and I've been to many a castle. To get a glimpse, check out the virtual tour at

We had lunch at the charming on-site restaurant and then walked about 150 meters to the Pelisor Castle.
Pelisor Castle was built in 1899–1902 by order of King Carol I, as the residence for his nephew and heir, Ferdinand (son of Carol's brother Leopold von Hohenzollern) and Ferdinand's consort Marie of Edinburgh. While Michael I has sold the Peles Castle back to Romania, he has decided to keep Pelisor Castle for the Royal Family; neverthesless, Pelisor Castle is today mostly used as a museum and is open to the public. Pelisor is interesting architecturally because it is a blend of art nouveau with byzantine and celtic elements. Additional photos of the castle can be found here.
To complete our agenda in Sinaia, we visited the Sinaia Monastery.
The Great Church at Sinaia Monastery: It was founded by Prince Mihail Cantacuzino in 1695 and named after the monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt. It was designed to serve both as a monastery as well as a fortified stronghold on the route from Brasnov to Bucharest. The town, Sinaia, in which it resides, was named after the monastery. Today it is inhabited by Christian Orthodox monks and is part of the Bucharest archdiocese.
Interior of the Great Church: Construction of The Great Church began in 1842 and was completed in 1846. The altar screen, the furniture of the nave and the two thrones are gold plated.
Thanks to King Carol I this was the first church in Romania to be lit by electricity.
Once we left the Sinaia Monastery, it was close to 16:00 and we knew we wouldn't have time to get to Bran Castle, about 45 minutes away. This just meant that we'd have to come back one day. Another thing we didn't cover, which I really wanted to do, was to drive along the Transfăgărășan highway, also sometimes referred to as "Ceausescu's Folly"; it's 90 km of twists and turns and runs north to south across the tallest sections of the southern Carpathians, between the highest peak in the country, Moldoveanu, and the second highest, Negoiu. Ceausescu built it as a strategic military route in response to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. Ceaușescu wanted to ensure quick military access across the mountains in the event the Soviets attempted a similar move into Romania. We were in Romania at the wrong time of the year however to drive the length of the highway. Because of snow, one can only count on it being open June through September. Perhaps we'll do a combined Hungary-Romania trip one day since it would be unlikely that we'd see anything of Hungary, including Budapest, this trip either.

On March 20th, we left Brasov and drove to Timișoara, Romania. We chose Timișoara as a stop-over because our next focus destination was Belgrade, Serbia and the drive between Brasnov and Belgrade was too far to complete in a single day. Even with the break, it was a long drive and we were pulled over once by traffic police who caught us speeding in a 50 km zone; it was a 100 km highway with a 300 meter drop to 50 km passing an intersection. A lucrative speed trap. Fortunately, Vincent got off with a warning. But the woman officer said, "If I ever pull you over again, you'll have to tell me that Sibiu is the best place in Romania." (And theoretically, she'll let him off again???)

We found our hotel without much trouble, unloaded the car and then went into the city for dinner.  We didn't know much about Timisoara before we arrived other than it is where the 1989 Romanian Revolution began. It is now a city of about 320,000 people. Records of first settlements go back to the 13th century. The area was ruled by Ottomans from the mid-16th century through the early 18th century and Timisoara was the first mainland European city to be lit by electric street lamps, in 1884.
Piata Unirii (Union Square) and the surrounding streets were completely torn up. (The town doesn't seem to believe in doing things in stages.) When complete, it likely will be fabulous. The buildings around the square are architectural gems; they largely date from the Austrian Empire (1804-67) era.
On March 21st we woke to a most perfect spring day. There wasn't really a great deal to do in Timișoara museum-wise; the Banat Museum was closed for renovations and the Art Museum would be a non-starter for the kids. When I saw that Timișoara had a children's park (Parcul Copiilor Ion Creanga), I decided we'd make this a kids day and spend it at the park. Paul decided it would also be a Molly day and she'd come to the park too.

While I may have made a number of criticisms about certain things in Romania, I must give the country full marks for the playgrounds we'd seen. Both in Bucharest and in Timișoara, we encountered a number of parks that had multiple play areas. The Parcul Copiilor was exceptional and was one of the best children's parks we had ever visited in any country.
Crossing the Bega River to the Parcul Copiilor. The Decebal Bridge can be seen in the distance.
None of us had ever seen a rope swing like this before. It was a blast.
Our three buccanneers took over the pirate ship.
We rented peddle-carts for the kids and they loved those.
They were off for an hour or so while Vince, Molly and I relaxed on a park bench.
In the summer, this green canal is filled with water and the park has canoes going around that children aged 1-7 can ride. Meanwhile kids can play on the island in the wigwams.
The in-ground tramplines were a big hit too.
The lighthouse slide was another great find as we were about to exit Copiilor Park.
 Leaving the Copiilor Park, we next walked through the Parcul Rozelor (Park of Roses).
It's the wrong time of year to see the Parcul Rozelor at it's best. Apparently June and August are prime blooming months. Nevertheless, it was clear this is a beautiful and well-manicured garden.
We then walked through the Parcul Justitiei (Justice Park), passed by the Banatul State Philharmonic Orchestra concert building and ultimately reached the Timișoara Orthodox Cathedral.
In front of the Philharmonic Orchestra concert building was this star for George Enescu. George Enescu's name was used on a number of streets and landmarks we'd seen in Romania. He was a Romanian composer, violinist, pianist, conductor and teacher.
Catedrala Mitropolitană din Timișoara (Timișoara Orthodox Cathedral): The cathedral was built between 1936 and 1941. It's ranked as one of the top sights to see in Timisoara.
The building's architecture style is a mix of Neo-Moldavian, late Renaissance, Ottoman and Byzantine elements. Buildings of a Neo-Moldavian style tend to have an elongated figure as seen in the previous photo.
After visiting the Cathedral, everyone was rather parched and so we stopped for refreshments on Piata Victoriei.
While Vincent and I finished our drinks, the kids, and especially Molly, had a grand time chasing pigeons.
We then walked further down Piata Victoriei and had dinner. There was a lot more chasing of pigeons that evening. It was a good day and probably one that the kids and Molly enjoyed the most in a long time.

While Bucharest had its shortcomings, we really enjoyed Brasov and Timisoara. We had identified other places we'd like to visit, such as Bran Castle and the Transfăgărășan highway. Clearly Romania has its prized locations and we only scratched the surface. Maybe one day we'll be lucky enough to pick up again where we left off.