Photo of the Week – The Breathtaking Alps of Transylvania

Romania, Transylvania, Transylvanian Alps, hiking, nature, outdoors, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

This scene was what we were rewarded with after arriving at the Cabana Curmatura in the Transylvanian Alps in Romania and hiking on for another hour.  I dream of returning to amazing Transylvania.  Too bad people’s only notion of it is the legend of Dracula:  there is SO much to enjoy and explore there!

Romania, Transylvania, Transylvanian Alps, hiking, nature, outdoors, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Brașov : The Gem of Transylvania

Brașov, Romania, architecture, travel

In 2012, I was fortunate to hike in the Transylvanian Alps in Romania for four days.  It was a wonderful experience as it was trekking with purpose:  to help orphaned kids in a Romanian orphanage in the town of Brașov (pronounced BRA-shov).  I have shared about the hike and the service aspects of this incredible trek.  But what I have not done is pay the town of Brașov its due…  You see, Brașov was totally unexpected for me given my limited exposure to Romania before this trip.  Also, it was unexpected after spending a couple of days in Bucharest.  Brașov could not be any more different than its counterpart south of the mountains.  And that may be true of many towns in Romania if my visit to Iași added further to the case…

Brașov, Romania, architecture, travel

Headed towards city council (the tower) and main square of Brașov

Brașov, Romania, Black Church, White Tower, Black Tower, Transylvania

Black Church and the White and Black Towers on the hill

German Saxons were influential in shaping the region and this town going as far back as the 12th century when the Hungarian overlords of the area brought these industrious folks to help develop the area.  Brașov could be said was founded by Teutonic Knights but even after they left, the settlers stayed continuing to influence this town, so much so, that German is still an important language in the area (I found just as many people who spoke German there as English) though some of that could be due to more modern reasons too.  In any case, all you need to do is look at the architecture of this beautiful town surrounding a good bit by mountains to see what I mean.  You feel you are in maybe some part of Germany or Austria in the old part of the town.

Brașov, Romania, Transylvania, architecture

Beautiful buildings everywhere

architecture, Brașov, Romania

Detail on an old building

Some of the key sights and sites of the town include:

  • The Black Church, one of the largest (if not the largest) Gothic churches in southeastern Europe
    Brașov, Romania, Black Church, bell tower, architecture, travel, photo

    The Black Church

    Brașov, Romania, Black Church, clock, bell tower, architecture, travel, photo

    Clock of the Black Church

  • The old city gates that remain (Catherine’s which is the only original medieval gate still standing, and Şchei which is more recent from the 1820s)
  • The medieval city walls and fortifications, which you can get onto and walk pieces of it to see some of and go up the old towers (the White and Black towers)
    Brașov, Romania, White Tower, fortification, history

    The White Tower (I hope that is self-evident!)

    Black Tower, Brașov, Romania, fortification

    The Black Tower, which does not look as black as the White Tower looks white!

  • The main square or piața (Piața Sfatului) with all the cafés and lively scene
    Brașov, main square, Romania, kid, pigeon

    Brașov’s main square or piata full of life (and pigeons!)

    summer night, street musicians, piata, Brașov, Romania

    Musicians playing on a street leading to the piata on a summer night

  • Rope Street, the narrowest street in Romania
  • The first Romanian school (originally built in 1495 and re-built almost a century later into the current structure) sits next to St. Nicholas Church (which itself dates from the 16th century) and its small but interesting museum (we got a fun and lively short lecture by a priest named Vasile on the history of the school)

    St. Nicholas Church, Brașov, Romania, travel, architecture

    St. Nicholas Church in Brașov

Brașov is not only rich in history and architecture but it is also a perfect spot to explore Transylvania (which is WAY more than Bran’s Castle!) and from which to launch any summer or winter sports activities.  The hiking is phenomenal with beautiful landscapes that feel untouched by modernity and I can only imagine how neat the skiing is!

Brașov, Romania, street art, paintings

Street art near the main post office

And the food, oh, the food!  I loved it!

fried pork chunks, onions, Romanian food

Fried pork chunks – mmm!!!!

dessert, Brasov, Romania, food, delicious, travel

Deliciousness

bread, pastry, bakery, food, Romania

Fresh from the bakery!

Here a couple of images showing the range of “interesting” to be found in doors around town!

Brașov, Romania, door, scene, travel

Near St. Nicholas Church

door, tilted door, Brasov, Romania, red door

Was someone drunk? Or am I?

I enjoyed my days in Brașov before and after the hike and can safely say this is a MUST when visiting Romania.

Photo Essay: Bucharest, Romania

Calea Victoriei, one of the main streets in Bucharest, Romania

Bucharest was my gateway into Romania and I was eager to see this city that has always -for some strange reason- been an object of my curiosity.  The capital of Romania has been called the “Paris of the east” due to French architecture influence  – but perhaps also because the pre-communist elite had the airs?  I am not really sure but it definitelyhas  architecture reminiscent of the French capital.  In any case, Bucharest is a relative newcomer as a capital city having been picked as capital of Romania only in 1862.  It is a city of over 1.6 million inhabitants – and it feels that way:  a city with the weight of any capital city, with all the attributes of a European city, yet not quite a megalopolis or an international center.

There are too many photos to share so I will place them here in a gallery at the end so you can see some of what caught my eye in terms of architecture, monuments (especially to the 1989 revolution), streets, etc.  Just click on the images to enlarge them!  But first some thoughts on the city…

Architectural potpourri

It is very interesting to see this architecture in Bucharest because it usually is mixed in with very different styles. It almost feels that either construction in the city skipped a few periods or styles as some parts have very different styled buildings next to each other.  Maybe that is what some communism legacy does and what a deliberate demolition of old portions of a city will do (Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist dictator, razed parts of the city for his grandiose building, now the Parliament).  I don’t know as I am not an expert either in architecture or Romania!   This cacophony of styles gives it an interesting air…  And/or perhaps, I needed to see more of the city than I got to?

Old Town Bucharest

Old Town Bucharest is charming like the older part of a any city and, at night, is very lively and a great place to go to have dinner, watching folks go by, and then stay for drinks and more people watching.  We enjoyed a night out on a nice summer evening the night before our return home – good food, good wine, and lots of good laughs.

Not far from Old Town you encounter the grandiose communist buildings sponsored by Ceausescu – a madman of sorts yet independent enough to say no to the USSR whenever he felt like it.  (How DID he get away with it??!!)  In any case as I mentioned earlier, much of the older city was destroyed by him to pave way for these new buildings.  It is sad to think that, until the early 1980s, the old district was much larger and probably containing some gems that are now lost.

Sights around Bucharest

Bucharest has a canal going through it (the Dâmboviţa river that goes through town was channelized in the late 1800s to prevent the flooding that the city suffered periodically) and nice parks, especially near the Romanian Arc de Triomphe.  In that area you will tend to see foreign embassies and it seems a nice place to be if you live in Bucharest.  The most grandiose building of the communist period already has an entire post to itself here so I will not add those pictures to the gallery here.  Just know that around it are similar though slightly smaller buildings also built as part of Ceausescu’s grand plan.  One of those was built to house guests of Mr. Ceausescu and now serves as a magnificent J.W. Marriott!

Unfortunately, I did not get to spend much time in Bucharest as the focus of my trip was elsewhere.  However, I did get to see some of the key places around town, such as the former royal palace, a few churches, the monument to the revolution (eerie), and the balcony where Ceausescu stood in his final days trying to give a speech but, in a crucial moment in history, the crowd turned on him and the whole thing unraveled for Nicky  (I remember watching that in the US in the news the day it happened!).  I will end the post with the gallery of sights around Bucharest – enjoy!

(Click on the thumbnail to see the entire photo!)

Photo of the Week – A Night out in Brasov

Last summer, as you may have read (or hopefully will check out!), I did a hike in the Transylvanian Alps in Romania.  Home base for the trek was the charming city of Braşov.  I still have to write about that beautiful town but this picture really evokes the spirit of old town Braşov for me.  After a nice summer night dinner, we strolled around town as many of the locals seemed to be doing.  It was a fun atmosphere and I wish I had had more time there.  I shall return!

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The Other Castles in Transylvania, Romania

Peles Castle in Transylvania, Romania

On the day we finished the four days of hiking in the Transylvanian Alps, on our way back to Braşov we took a slight detour to visit two very beautiful castles in the Sinaia area of Romania:  the Peleş Castle and its sidekick, the Pelişor Castle.  While these two castles are not as old or as “famous” as Bran Castle (of Dracula notoriety), they are beautiful and quite evocative of a time and life past.  So this post is for “other”, lesser-known castles in surprising Romania!

Peles Castle in Transylvania, Romania

Peles Castle

Brief History of the Peleş and Pelişor Castles

Peleş Castle began being built around 1873-5.  It was ordered built by King Charles I of Romania.  It became an official summer royal residence around 1883 and it remained so until after World War II when it was confiscated by the communist government.  In 2007 it was returned to the ex-royal family though not its contents.  The family rents it back to the government to serve as a museum though I have also read that the family sold it back to the government (this could be more recent news).  (By the way these are the same ex-royals who still parade themselves at weddings and funerals of other European royal families still using royal titles – I think some folks need to get a grip…  But I digress.)  A lot of the objects in the castle originated from Austria or Germany.  Its main tower reminded me a little bit of the tower of Palace of Culture, in Iaşi.

Pelişor Castle, which sits a short walk away from Peleş, was also ordered built by Charles I but for his heir (and nephew), Ferdinand, to live in.  It was built around the turn of the 20th century from 1899-1903.  Since then, it shares the same history as Peleş.

Pelisor Castle in Transylvania, Romania near Sinaia

Pelisor Castle

Indoors and Outdoors at Peleş Castle

I was about to say (er, write) that my favorite part of this castle was the courtyard and the front yard.  Then I remembered the chandeliers I saw and some of the incredible rooms (especially the “oriental” room – how cool!).  The castle is worth the detour and worth paying the photo fee to take pictures.

Great architecture at Peles Castle in Transylvania, Romania

Great architecture at Peles Castle in Transylvania, Romania

Great architecture at Peles Castle in Transylvania, Romania

Note the painting of men holding flags but also how the white spaces look like the profile of two faces looking at each other!

Gardens of Peles Castle in Transylvania, Romania

Indoors at Peles Castle in Romania - St. George and the dragon

The ever-present St. George slaying the cursed dragon! (Photo courtesy of J. Stanmore)

Clock at Peles Castle in Romania

(Photo courtesy of J. Stanmore)

Oriental room at Peles Castle in Romania

My favorite: the oriental room! (Photo courtesy of J. Stanmore)

The majestic dining room at Peles Castle in Romania

The majestic dining room (Photo courtesy of J. Stanmore)

Indoors and Outdoors at Pelişor Castle

While Peleş felt more “grown-up”, Pelişor felt more like a regular home.  Not only because it was smaller, more manageable than Peleş but also because it had rooms for little kids on exhibit – it truly felt like a family’s home.  You could be forgiven for thinking that at any moment, kids were about to run in.

Pelisor Castle in Transylvania, Romania near Sinaia
Window at Pelisor Castle in Transylvania, Romania near Sinaia

Indoors at Pelisor Castle in Romania

(Photo courtesy of J. Stanmore)

Child's desk in a bedroom in Pelisor Castle in Romania

Child’s desk (Photo courtesy of J. Stanmore)

Door detail at Pelisor Castle in Romania

Detail of a door at the castle (Photo courtesy of J. Stanmore)

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So while Bran Castle is much better known (or, perhaps, the only known) castle in Romania to folks far from that country, it is a shame if a visitor to Romania makes it to Bran to see its castle and does not take the short detour to see these two gems of castles nestled in the lands around Sinaia.  It is well worth the effort!

Visiting a “Secondary” Town – the Cultural Capital of Romania: Iaşi (Iasi)

The airport in Iaşi, Romania

As I have been exploring Eastern Europe in recent years, I have begun realizing how much I enjoy visiting secondary towns in these countries (Krakow in Poland; Plovdiv in Bulgaria; Braşov in Romania; etc.).  Then I realized I have also enjoyed other such cities elsewhere.  I guess being away from the business of a capital city or a tourist mecca (e.g., London, Rome, Paris) draws me.  I wonder why that is.  I can’t say capital cities are not “real”; I mean, people live there and do the normal things people do.  Is it just that these secondary towns anywhere are more charming because they are not busy trying to be important?   Iaşi in Romania afforded me another chance to confirm this preference.

How did I decide to go to Iaşi of all places?

As I planned my visit to Romania and my side trip to neighboring Moldova, Iaşi (pronounced yash) was brought up to my attention as an interesting town from which to leave Romania to enter Moldova.  I was curious as to why it was suggested so I did some research.  I was already going to hit Braşov as the base for my Transylvanian Alps hike so I certainly could see another town.  Well Iaşi is referred to as the cultural capital of Romania and that was all I needed to hear for my curiosity to now require satisfaction!

Sometimes my approach to visit new places is flying by the seat of my pants and I may miss some neat little museum or site of local historical meaning.  But I like exploring, for the most part, without a pre-defined script.  My visit to Iaşi was like that.  I did get a map, I did read what were supposed to be THE main sights to see but, for the rest, I just meandered around town.  And it was very cool to be in a city that most tourists never get to see.

Getting to Iaşi from Bucharest

I considered taking a train from Bucharest as it is oftentimes a good way to see the countryside but I had very limited time so I would have only been in Iaşi for an evening.  So I decided to take a very cheap flight to maximize my time in the town.  As with most airports, the domestic flights terminal in Bucharest was much “simpler” than the international flights terminal.  Don’t count on the ATM working on the domestic terminal…  And the airport in Iaşi?  Thanks for asking!!

The airport in Iaşi, Romania

The Iaşi airport – tiny!

The TAROM plane in which I flew from Bucharest to Iasi, Romania

My plane into Iaşi

I landed at around 11 AM which afforded me an entire afternoon of walking around.  I got into a taxi at the airport and $5 later, I was in town.  Though Iaşi is not a large town, it has plenty of monasteries in and near town that could have been great to visit but I decided to focus in the town itself to keep it simpler.

My hotel in Iaşi in Unirea Square

As usual, I used TripAdvisor to find a hotel that sounded well-located and that was well-reviewed by other travelers.  The Traian Hotel sounded perfect:  located in the Unirea (Unity) Square, it was within walking distance of many of the places I sought to visit.

View from the Unirea Hotel at the same-named square in Iasi (Iaşi), Romania

From the top floor bar at the Unirea Hotel, looking at Unirea Square with the Traian Hotel on the right

Interesting architecture of the Unirea Hotel in Iasi (Iaşi), Romania

Interesting architecture of the Unirea Hotel

The Traian Hotel was built in the 1880s by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame, a few years before he created the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower!  It has hosted the Romanian government (during WW I), famous people (like Greta Garbo), etc.  It was one of the first buildings in Europe to be molded on a metal frame.  The hotel was pretty inexpensive for an American pocketbook.  The lobby was not much and the spacious room was simple but it offered cable TV, a modern bathroom, and yet decorated to reflect its period/heyday.  It also included a free and very nice buffet breakfast at its restaurant.

Traian Hotel in Iasi (Iaşi), Romania designed by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame

Traian Hotel in Unirea Square

Room at the Traian Hotel in Iasi (Iaşi), Romania

My room at the Traian

I had read that there was a tourism office right by Unirea Square.  However, it was not on it but on one of the main streets going through it right after it exited the square.  I am glad I persisted in finding it as they were very helpful, providing me with great information not only what to see in the town but also in neighboring regions of Romania and Moldova as well.  I thank the the folks at the Department of Tourist Development of the Iaşi Municipality and Delia for their help with the map and the info!

View from my room at the Traian Hotel in Iasi (Iaşi), Romania

View from my hotel room (could not figure out what this building was)

Old cinema in Unirea Square in Iasi (Iaşi), Romania

Old cinema in Unirea Square (right around the corner to the right is the tourism office)

Walking around beyond the Unirea Square

I walked down to the Palace of Culture, built between 1906-1925, a beautiful piece of neogothical architecture and the image of Iaşi.

Palace of Culture in Iaşi, Romania

Palace of Culture in Iaşi, Romania

The Palace of Culture hosts several museums but I was more interested that day in walking the town, exploring its streets rather than museum-visiting so I walked around and ran into a festival area where the smell of sausages cooking and large tents from Timişoreana beer (Timişoara is a city in western Romania).  The festival was seemingly starting that evening but I took advantage of the setup to have some good and VERY cheap lunch!

Sausage and Timisoreana beer in Iaşi, Romania

Yum

I visited churches and monasteries and that will be the subject of another post.  Besides those impressive places, I also walked past the imposing School of Medicine and Pharmacy and other university buildings (it is a university town after all).  The National Theater was also a beautiful structure (wished I had gone inside).  Here are those buildings and a couple of other neat sights around town.

University building in Iasi, Romania

Interesting architecture in a university building (note the construction; it seems the EU is pumping good money for improvements in infrastructure in Romania)

School of Medicine and Pharmacy from the Unirea Hotel in Iasi, Romania

School of Medicine and Pharmacy from the Unirea Hotel

National Theater in Iasi, Romania

National Theater

National Theater in Iasi, Romania

National Theater detail – dig the “mask” at the top

Movie theater, or cinema, in Iasi, Romania

Tram in Iasi, Romania

Iaşi was definitely different than Bucharest and even Braşov (which is not a capital city and of which I will write later).  Perhaps being further away from the capital of modern Romania and closer to Moldova and the Ukraine gives it an influence lacking south of the Carpathians (where Bucharest is).  It did not feel a rushed place. And it did not seem to have a café culture as other European towns have like Paris, Rome, etc.  or even Bucharest with Old Town or Braşov with all the cafés around the town center.  I cannot say it was incredibly beautiful like Salzburg, Krakow or others.  However, Iaşi felt more accessible and “real”.  It also allowed me to -yet again- experience how non-capital, non-touristy cities offer the visitor a different experience – and it was certainly worth it.

Photo of the Week – Poetry in Motion in Romania

Gypsy woman in Iasi, Romania architecture

Near the School of Medicine, in Iasi (pronounced yash), Romania, I learned what poetry in motion could mean…  Call me. MAYBE.

Gypsy woman in Iasi, Romania architecture

More about my trip to Romania?  Check out the hike I did!  Or “static poetry” here.  Or how the trip evolved from the hike to a few more things!

 

 

Trekking with a Purpose – the Best of Both Worlds

A hike around the Bucegi Mountains in Romania

My trip to Romania and Moldova was triggered and centered around a hike in Romania organized by Trekking for Kids to support a local orphanage.  If it were not for this organization, I may have waited much longer to get to Romania and, more than likely, never hiked the beautiful trails along the Carpathian Mountains.  And, if it were not for this organization, I would not have met the wonderful kids I met at the orphanage in Romania.

A hike around the Bucegi Mountains in Romania

The Bucegi Mountains

Trekking for Kids

Trekking for Kids (TFK) was created in 2005 to find a way to support orphanages around the world while combining those efforts with treks for those helping fundraise for those orphanages (see their full story).  Over the years, they have conducted treks (some of them they repeat over the years) and helped orphanages in (trek/orphanage):   Everest Base Camp/Nepal, Camino de Santiago/Morocco, Inca Trail/Peru, Kilimanjaro/Tanzania, and others.  In fact, Kilimanjaro is planned for 2013 along with a couple of  other unnamed destinations but including college- and family- oriented treks!  So go check them out and bookmark; you never know what will call to you!

The Romania Trek

In this Romania trek, TFK organized a well-planned and well-run hike whether for newbie trekkers like me or experienced ones as some of my fellow trekkers.  Their choice of the hike guides (Your Guide Romania) was simply outstanding; they do more than hikes and should you desire to explore Romania and mix with adventures like hiking, paragliding, skiing, etc., they ARE your guys and this group of trekkers seriously endorses them!

More importantly, TFK found and carefully vetted a local orphanage that would not just accept funds and other contributions but one that has a philosophy of truly caring for its children, offering them a healthy home environment, and that thought about the children’s long-term needs:  those once a child turns 18 and, normally, gets shown out of an orphanage.

The Foundation for Abandoned Children (Pentru Copii Abondonati) clearly has a vision not only for the immediate care of the children and young adults, but for preparing them to enter life outside of the home.  And that’s what I found so wonderful about the choice TFK made:  I knew my efforts, my donors’ contributions, and my time would be magnified as this foundation’s philosophy and approach was perfect to take the unexpected support they were receiving via TFK and translating it into bigger possibilities for the children and young adults.

Our First Day with the Children

We arrived at one of the three houses in the town of Ghimbav, near Brasov, all eager to meet the children and wondering what specifically the conditions at the orphanage would be.  As we arrived, a couple of children came out as they were clearly all eagerly awaiting us.

We had just made the 2-3 hr drive from Bucharest on a Saturday morning which means it takes longer than normal due to weekend traffic from the big city to the country.  We had stopped at our hotel, the Kolping Hotel, on the outskirts of Brasov by the mountain with the BRASOV sign, to drop of our luggage before meeting the children.

So, we entered the orphanage and immediately started meeting both children and staff.  Lots of names to remember but TFK had brought name tags which would greatly facilitate remembering everyone’s names.  At some point, I traded names with one of the kids named Anton, and I started a mania – all of a sudden, and for most of the rest of the day, a constant flurry of name tag changing began.  The younger kids loved it and it made for part of the fun.

Clearly my name is not Anton but that was my name at the moment. Here with Alex, one of the older teens.

We were shown around the houses (2 owned by the foundation and 1 rented if I remember correctly).  The facilities were pretty good and that made my heart feel good as I have seen orphanages elsewhere where the conditions, while not the worst, still did not feel adequate for children.  Clearly, the foundation has done a good job of establishing a healthy environment for the children to live in.

The largest home houses kids, boys and girls, of all ages.  The second home houses boys.  The third home right now has mostly work space (e.g., a woodworking workshop) but will be prepared to take the older children/young adults after a new roof is installed and the indoor space renovated.  Some of the funds raised will go to the repair of the roof and some of the older boys have contributed to the prep work and will participate, led by the construction crew, in repairing the roof – a good skill to pick up!

House in Romania

The roof and space to be renovated

Old roof in a house in Romania

The upper space to be renovated

After getting a lay of the land and seeing the garden where they grow produce, we proceeded to break up into groups to do different projects.  Some of us stayed at the boys’ house to sand furniture down so they could be restored.  Others went off to help bottle up jam (to sell, along with crafts made by the kids, in local markets).  Others started doing a tie-dye shirt project which they kids and teens greatly enjoyed (and we the saw the end results when we returned after the hike – really good job!).  At some point, we all moved through some of the activities along with the children.  These activities enabled us to get to know the kids and the kids to get to know us.  It was a great afternoon.

Working hard and having fun with tie-dying!

Tie-dying

And lots of concentration!

Post-Hike Time at the Orphanage

Hike concluded, we went back to the orphanage for two days of activities:  on the first day BBQ/dinner and games at the orphanage; and the second day a morning hike followed by lunch.  The kids sported their newly-made tie-dye shirts and they truly were amazing!

The BBQ/dinner was a lot of fun.  These kids know how to fend for themselves and the food was delicious!  We then did several activities:  making smores, playing football (soccer) & basketball, etc.  I played my very first soccer match ever and apparently I am great at defending and goal-keeping!  Who knew!

Amateur soccer player

Yet-another Spanish-blooded Raul who can play football/soccer

 

The hike and lunch was a fun day too.  Not all the children went up the trail and stayed earlier in the trail.  The rest of us went to the top with a few of us hanging out and the bulk of the group going through a more difficult section of the trail.  I hung out with a couple of adults and a few of the kids who didn’t want to go on.  Afterwards, we treated the kids to a lunch out which was a great way to hang out before our departure for Bucharest, and back home.

Zoli and I killing time as we waited for the rest of the group

In the end, it’s never enough time to spend with the children and teens, especially once you make the connections.  While I do not know what the future brings, I sure hope I can remain in touch with the foundation and hear about the children – and, who knows, perhaps seeing them again some day!  And I also hope I am blessed with another opportunity to go on a trek with TFK.

Group picture

The entire group – thanks to the wonderful staff and the great children!

A Big Ego Needs A Big Building: the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest

For me, visiting any city in the world means seeking to know its unique character, exploring the different types of neighborhoods, visiting some of the key sites (monuments, museums, grand boulevards, riversides, etc.), sampling its food, and watching life go by when time allows it.  Paris has the Eiffel Tower, the Latin Quarter, and the omni-present cafés.  Rome has Roman ruins galore, the Trastevere, and the Campo de Fiore.  Santiago has the Cerro Santa Lucia and the Barrio Bellavista.  And, as I have recently learned, Bucharest has the Palace of Parliament and Old Town.

The Palace of Parliament (“Parliament”) is such a massive building and its story equally massive in the insanity of the project that it is worth its own writeup.  It is the second largest building in the world (after the U.S. Pentagon) and, ergo, the largest civilian building the world.  And it certainly is a great way to understand recent Romanian history and the mental health, perhaps, of its long-in-power, last communist leader, Ceausescu.

Palace of Parliament in Bucharest, Romania. Ceausescu's legacy.

Visiting Parliament

Seeing the building from the outside is quite a sight.  It is HUGE.  But to best appreciate the scale of the structure and the ego that drove its construction, one MUST see it from the inside.  This means going for a tour.  There are a couple of options, one that covers the main rooms and another that adds to that visiting the main balcony and the basement.  I highly recommend the latter and it only takes about 2 hrs for the longer tour (hours are 10AM – 4PM as of July 2012).

North entrance to the Palace of Parliament, Bucharest, Romania

Entrance for visitors is along the north side of the building shown here

I was surprised to learn that it has 12 stories.  It just seems so much more monumental from the outside!  It also has:

  • 340,000 sq m or 3,700,000 sq ft (the Pentagon, as a comparison, has 600,000 sq m or 6,500,000 sq ft)
  • 1,100 rooms
  • 1,000,000 cubic m of marble
  • 480 chandeliers
  • 200,000 sq m of woolen carpets (some sown on-site so they could be installed as they were so big!)
  • and so on…

Get the picture?  It is worth noting that about 95% of all materials were sourced within Romania itself.

Seeing the land around the building (the tour takes you to the roof terrace, the best platform for the 360 degree view) also gives a sense of the massive destruction that was required in order to clear the way for its construction.   In fact, such is the extent of the land around the Parliament building that the largest Orthodox church in southeastern Europe is being built in a corner of its grounds!!  (picture that follows)

Palace of Parliaments grounds in Bucharest, Romania. Future site of church.

The History behind Parliament

Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were, to put it simply, megalomaniacs.  Crazy, narcissist, cruel, and all such words would apply as well.  Maverick applies too as he was able to keep the USSR at bay; but that is another story.  The point is that they saw the need for a monumentally-scaled building to house all of the key government bodies (to be called the “House of the People”), including serving as his residence (and bunker).  One can see easily how it would help them better control government as just being in the building would give one a sense of their (Nicolae’s and Elena’s) power and omnipresence as opposed to feeling semi-secure and semi-removed a few blocks away from them.  The new construction (though in neoclassical style) also helped drive forward the battle between the old and new which was not about aesthetics or modernity but the battle to cement communism over past systems and regimes.

So one of the most historic parts of Bucharest (with over 20 churches and 30,000 residences) was destroyed and a major hill was razed in order to clear the land for this building and other structures.  What shocked me was to learn this all happened in the 1980s!  Somehow that blew me away:  that in such “modern times”, what is called the largest peacetime (willful) destruction of a city in recent history took place.

The Ceausescus, poor them, did not get to see the building finished (it is still not finished!).  The revolution swept them out of power and out of this life in 1989.  Sweet revenge by karma, I say.

Parliament’s Indoors

The tour will take you from meeting rooms to large halls to massive hallways to ballrooms to grand staircases and everything else needed to convince people of someone’s greatness.  Even the chamber that serves as preamble to the grand ballroom was designed so that as the Ceausescus’ approached the grand ballroom, the clapping of people in the ante-chamber got acoustically magnified by the room’s design so the people waiting in the grand ballroom heard an even louder reception for them before they walked in to the grand ballroom.  (Mental note:  consider that for a future renovation of my home’s foyer…)

The grand ballroom is of great scale and the other rooms not too shabby either.  Some of them have big open spaces on the walls – were portraits of the grand couple were supposed to be hanged…

(Source: http://www.marriott.com/hotels/photo-tours.mi?marshaCode=buhro&pageID=HWPEM&imageID=0)

The meeting rooms had everything you may expect including hidden doors behind the chair Ceausescu would use in case he had to make an emergency exit.  The hall (music hall, theater, whatever you want to call it) has what has to be one of the largest chandeliers in the world (per an article in Wikipedia, the largest chandelier in the world is in the Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul – who knew).  Some of the chandeliers have over 7,000 light bulbs!  For the chandelier below, there is actually a hidden room or passageway above that is used to access the light bulbs when they need to be changed!   I imagine that STILL does not make it an easy endeavor…

(Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Palace_of_the_parliament_Chandelier.JPG. Author: Ferran Cornellà)

The rooms in the building are not all alike.  The styles vary based on purpose, location, etc.  As I mentioned before, the building actually is not yet finished.  In fact, there are a lot of unfinished spaces.  Curiously, the original main architect, Anca Petrescu, (there was a rather large team of architects involved – about 700!) is still the main architect today.

Ceiling in the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

The grand balcony is worth stepping into.  The scale of the building carries onto the balcony and its columns.  Also, a little secret is that the balcony railing is shorter than normal because Mr. Ceausescu was a short man and he wanted to make sure that the “adulating crowds” saw him as tall.  Were there no psychotherapists in communist Romania??  LOL.

Balcony of the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

So – What to Make of this One HUMONGOUS Building in Bucharest??

A few pictures do not do this building justice.  I am sure there are thousands out there.  But, of course, the best is seeing in for oneself.

It is hard to be happy with the destruction of a historic city quarter to satisfy someone’s ego.  Having said that, the building is already there and it is something to see if travels take you to Bucharest.  The scale and grandeur of this structure should put it on everyone’s must-see list for sure!

Have you been to the Palace of Parliament?  What were your thoughts as you saw it?

How to Plan a Trip – and then Increase Scope: The Desire to Travel!

Map of Romania and Moldova

When I decided earlier this year on doing the trek in Romania, little did I know how a one week trek was going to become a 16-day trip – but I am talented that way:  plan a vacation and then add more than originally intended to practically double its duration and scope!  Let me share with you how that happens to me using this trip as an example.  I will also use this post to lay out the overall trip to Moldova and Romania so that, as I write about it, readers can see how it all comes together…

Note:  I hope you subscribe to the blog (if you have not already done so) so you can keep up with the writings and read as you have the time.  The trip was incredibly different for me and I hope what I share helps give a better glimpse into these countries!!

First Things First:  What Led Me to Take a Trip Now and to Romania?

Fine questions!  As I announced in a prior post, the main purpose of this trip was to go on trek with Trekking for Kids to help an orphanage in Romania by raising funds for projects to improve the orphanage and also to just be with the kids and bring them something different from their day to day.  More about the orphanage part of the trip later but I will say now that if you want to help children around the world and tackle some great mountains (Everest base camp, Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu, etc.), you should look into Trekking for Kids.

Trekking for Kids

An Itinerary Takes Shape, with Some Randomness

On to how I planned my itinerary….  The trek was about a week so I knew I had to take advantage of getting to that part of Europe to see something more.  Can’t waste a good and dear trans-Atlantic crossing…

Among the choices was a return trip to the Greek islands (for R&R after the hike; something I would have really enjoyed), or visiting any of the countries that surround Romania.  Of those countries, I had already gone to Bulgaria so that left the Ukraine, Moldova, Hungary and Serbia – none of which I had visited.  I eliminated the last 2 as I felt those are easier to get to from places like Austria, Croatia, etc. so I w0uld be more likely to see them in the future.  That left the Ukraine and Moldova. Moldova started peeking my curiosity as it is so much less known to me and, likely, to my compatriots.  As I researched the country, it sounded like it had some interesting things so that became the destination.

My plans then were to land in Bucharest and go to Moldova ahead of the hike part of the trip.  I proceeded to research hotels in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova (pronounced KISH-now).  I had not yet figured out how I was going to see the country and what it had to offer.  As I read reviews in Trip Advisor for hotels, I ran into a comment that a reviewer from the UK had made about a guide he hired for a one-on-one tour of Moldova.  I sent the reviewer a few questions and with his strong endorsement of this guide, I proceeded to contact the guide, Dumitru, to see what itinerary he would recommend for a 2-3 day visit and what the costs would be.  Dumitru offered several options and mentioned, in passing, that he could pick me up in Iasi, Romania if I wanted.  Immediately curiosity kicked in as I wondered why he would think I would go to Iasi.  There had to be a reason…

So off I went to research Iasi.  Turns out it is considered to be the cultural capital of Romania and that it had a hotel designed by Monsieur Eiffel himself.  That was all I needed to hear but now I had more logistics to research and more time on my vacation calendar to slice off.  (I will say here and likely repeat in a future blog how great Dumitru was!  Should you need a guide in eastern Romania or Moldova, hit me up for his email.)

Researching Trips Rocks

If you are thinking to yourself “this guy must love researching stuff”, you would be correct.  Doing research for me is the beginning of the trip:  I started learning the moment I started studying the maps of Moldova and Romania, or when I read some bloggers’ writings about these places, or when I chatted with a fellow Twitter friend about his trip through the Transniestra…

Figuring out the Logistics…

In any case, I decided due to my arrival date in Romania and the start of the hike that I could not afford taking the train from Bucharest to Iasi.  While distances are not long some times in Eastern Europe, what I consistently found out or heard was how artificially long the train rides are; case in point, a 6-7 hour drive from Chisinau to Bucharest could take twice that by train!  So I decided to fly to Iasi the morning after arriving in Bucharest foregoing looking at the landscape as I traveled.  Once in Iasi, I would have that afternoon and evening to explore it (almost enough time).  The next morning, I would be picked by my Moldovan guide, and then fly back to Bucharest from Chisinau, Moldova 2 days later.

My 3 days in Moldova would mostly be centered in the middle region of the country given where most of the key sites are but a trip north was planned to visit an important fortress in the town of Soroca on the Ukrainian border.

Romania

Once in back in Romania, the situation required less planning as most of it was handled by the trek organizers.  I only needed to take care of my hotel after returning from Moldova and plan my sightseeing the day after.  The trekkers would spend one night together in Bucharest before heading to Transylvania (the town of Brasov – prounounced BRAH-shov) where our trek and orphanage work would be “headquartered” for the next week.

The Travels I Did – A Map

I find a map helps visualize things so I quickly marked on this Romania/Moldova map the key travel routes and the method of transport I ended up using.  Clearly, I did not see all that Romania has to offer.  I hear Sibiu, Timisoara and Cluj-Napoca are well worth seeing too.

By the way, as a footnote, there is some kinship between Romania and Moldova.  In fact, the languages are practically the same and there are many cross-border family ties as, at some point in history, they were both one country.  Apparently, it is still a topic today (reunification or not), but I do not know enough to explain the situation here… Suffice it to say that Moldova has, itself, a region in the east that wants to separate from Moldova (it’s called the Transniestra and it was in the news in the 1990s due to civil war-like clashes with the Moldovan government)!

Romania Moldova Map

Final Itinerary and Key Activities in Romania and Moldova

To sum it all up and serve as a guide to writings I will create (I will add links here as the writings are published), here is a detailed itinerary of the trip…

Day 1 – Depart Atlanta, connect in Amsterdam, and land in Bucharest at midnight local time.

Day 2 – Depart Bucharest in the morning and land in Iasi in the morning.

Day 3 – Be picked up by my Moldova tour guide in Iasi and cross the border into Moldova.  Visit the Frumoasa and Curchi monasteries.  Brief stop in Orhei.  Visit Chateau Vartely, have lunch, and sample the wines.

Day 4 – Tour Chisinau, and travel to Soroca.

Day 5 – Visit the Milestii Mici winery and the Capriana Monastery.  Fly to Bucharest.

Day 6 – Sightsee in Bucharest, including its Palace of Parliament, and meet the hike group.

Day 7 – Travel by road to Brasov (3-4 hrs).  Explore Brasov and visit the orphanage.

Day 8 – Begin the hike on the Wallachian side of the Carpathian Mountains.

Day 9 – Second day of the hike into Transylvania via the Strunga Pass.

Day 10 – Third day of the hike.

Day 11 – Final day of the hike and night out in Brasov.

Day 12 – Explore more of Brasov.  Afternoon and evening at the orphanage with football (soccer) match included.

Day 13 – Hike with the kids.  Return to Bucharest.

Day 14 – Depart for Paris.

Day 15 – Hang out with nothing seriously planned in Paris.

Day 16 – Fly back home!

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If you can relate to this approach to trip planning and/or have stories of your own, I’d love to hear them!

The Land of Re-Born Churches and Monasteries

Frumoasa Monastery in Moldova

I had no idea when I first thought of going to Moldova that I would see a treasure trove of church and monastery architecture but as I researched a possible visit to Moldova, I learned that was exactly what I was going to see.

Moldova, as a Soviet Socialist Republic, was a place where the system tried to take man’s humanity out of the equation – and part of that was removing the strength and hope that faith can provide.  Churches and monasteries were either destroyed or severely damaged; those that were not totally destroyed were re-purposed as mental hospitals, children’s institutions, etc. and the religious communities were broken up.

It is evident that Moldova is trying to shed its Soviet past in the ways that are possible for a small economy that is not in the EU and that is talked about as one of the poorest, if not the poorest, in Europe.   For example, roads are being re-built in and around the capital, Chisinau.  The airport is modern.  But what I noticed was how churches and monasteries have been worked on to restore them to their greatness, even if not all buildings in the complexes are completely restored yet.

Visiting monasteries does not require an appointment nor are there entrance fees.  Simply walk in.  Do remember to dress appropriately!

But after showing you these monasteries below, I have a conclusion I would like to share.

Frumoasa Monastery

This small and beautiful monastery, which reminded me of the Greek isles due to its sharp blue and white colors, was the focus of my photo of the week post earlier this week but it is worthy of including here as it was such a gem.  The monastery is about 14 km from Calarasi town which in turn is about 50 km from Chisinau.  It is also a convenient monastery to see if visiting the Curchi monastery.

Frumoasa Monastery in Moldova

Frumoasa Monastery altar in Moldova

Curchi Monastery

This monastery (pronounced COOR-key) is considered one of the most beautiful and famous monastery complex in Moldova with 2 large churches (and other small ones I did not get to see) and many other spaces and buildings in its footprint.  It was founded around the 1770s.  Between the 1950s and the early 2000s it did not operate as a monastery though now it has again become a monastery for men.  Lots of visitors/pilgrims the day I went though it was a weekday.  And strict rules as no photography was allowed within the churches.

The main church, painted in bright red, is the Church of the Mother of God and was built in the late 19th century.  It is a beautiful building up close but even more impressive as one approaches the monastery by road.

Church of the Mother of God in the Curchi Monastery in Moldova

St. Dumitru Church in the Curchi Monastery

Capriana Monastery

This monastery, one of the oldest in Moldova dating to the 1420s, is just 40 km away from Chisinau.  It is one of the most important ones because rulers, including the most important one, Stefan cel Mare, helped build it.  The two main churches, St. George and St. Nicholas, were built in the 1840s and 1900s, respectively.

Capriana Monastery in Moldova

Capriana Monastery in Moldova

Capriana Monastery in Moldova - Image of Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great)

Image of Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great)

Chisinau Center Churches/Cathedrals

Chisinau as a city has a good number of churches (for views of Chisinau itself, check my post on it here).  Right in the city center there are a few worth checking out.

1.  Near the Hotel National lies the St. Great Martyr Tiron Cathedral, quite a beautiful structure built in the 1850s.

Stanful Teodor Tiron Church in Moldova

2.  The Transfiguration Cathedral (or the Church of Schimbarea La Fata in Moldovan) sits next to the Ministry of Agriculture.  It has been beautifully restored inside.  It’d be easy to pass it up given the size of nearby Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity but don’t miss visiting it.

Church in Chisinau, Moldova

3.  The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity, however, is the most imposing of the churches I saw in Chisinau.  It is a Russian Orthodox Church built around the 1830s.  It, and its front tower and outdoor baptistry, sit in a large square facing the Triumphal Arch and, beyond, the imposing (though unimaginatevely architected) Government House building.

Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ's Nativity in Chisinau, Moldova

Baptistry at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ's Nativity in Chisinau, Moldova

The outdoor baptistry

Small Churches in Orhei

The predominant religion in Moldova is Orthodox Christianity.  In Orhei, a town north of Chisinau with about 25,000 inhabitants, I visited the small Catholic Church.  We asked the attendant what percent of the town’s people were Catholic and she replied:  “4%  – but working on it.”  What a spirit!

The town had small Orthodox churches but because of our itinerary/schedule, I could not explore except from the car.  But they were definitely colorful!

Church in Moldova

My Conclusion:  It’s about More than Architecture

So the renewal I witnessed in Moldova was impressive but even more impressive was seeing the faithful visit these religious places so openly, something that I am sure was impossible (or close to it?) during the decades of Soviet communism.  Those images are the ones that really stay with me…

Person praying at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Chisinau, Moldova

Candles at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Chisinau, Moldova

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You can find more information about monasteries in Moldova here.

Into the Land of the Dracula Legend (Or Is It?) and Moldova

Brașov, Romania, Black Church, White Tower, Black Tower, Transylvania

So my trek to Romania is fast approaching.  I shared here about the hike in Romania in support of a local orphanage (donations welcome at www.trekkingforkids.org; mark me as the trekker!).  I have been preparing and planning to visit the Alps in Transylvania, made famous (or better known) by the story of Dracula…

The Hike

The hike will take place over 4 days where among other places we will stop at the castle that inspired the story of Dracula (Bran’s Castle).  We will staying in chalets or other accommodations in the area and we will visit other castles in the area.  We will be hiking for 5-6 hours every day and ascending to upwards of 9,000ft above sea level.  I have done 3-4 hr hikes in Kennesaw Mountain, about 20 minutes north of Atlanta, along trails they have up and around the mountain.  I have also been relying on the treadmill doing hour-long walks at 10% incline or more.  I sure hope this and my overall general fitness level help make this hike something less than a painful experience!

Pre-Hike Visit to Moldova

I don’t generally miss an opportunity to see a new place so I thought to myself that if I am going to Romania, I needed to do something in addition to Romania in this trip.  In terms of Romania, I get to see Bucharest, Brasov and the Transylvanian Alps so I was leaning to go somewhere outside of Romania.

The Greek Isles definitely beckoned but the lack of direct flights to the islands (taking into account all the stuff I will be lugging around for the hike) made me -sadly- kill that option.  A strong contender was neighboring Serbia.  But as I looked at the map more, there was one obvious candidate destination that I may otherwise not get to… the ex-Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova.  I hear it still feels somewhat Soviet but I have also heard great things about fortresses, monasteries and wineries so it makes sense for me to explore it.  I decided to make it there before the hike.

Through a recommendation from someone in TripAdvisor, I contacted a local guide who will take me around for the 3 days I will be in Moldova to explore this -to me- mysterious country.  The local guide recommended I see Romania’s cultural capital, Iasi (population ~350K, inhabited since 400BC!), very close to Moldova on the west and that he could pick me up there.  So Iasi got added to the itinerary though I will spend less than a half a day there unfortunately.

Iasi, Romania

Iasi (photo courtesy of: RomanianMonasteries.org)

Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, will be my base those three days.  I have decided to stay at the Best Western Flowers which seemed well located and got good reviews in TripAdvisor (one of my preferred sources).

Map showing my tour of Moldova (based in Chisinau)

Map showing the areas I will explore on the three day visit

I am excited to get to explore one of the smallest and lesser known European countries and enjoy its charms before I do the hike.

Getting to Romania

I wanted to use frequent flyer miles to get to Bucharest but, as everyone has heard, airline miles keep losing value.  I had hoped to make the trip business class as I never get to do that on international flights.  However, what used to be a 90,000 mile business class seat can be now over 200,000 miles!  Inflation of awards outpaces any normal inflation metric…  Clearly a mental note has been made to earn points where possible outside of frequent flyer accounts (Marriott, for example, has a great and valuable rewards program).

Sure enough, I couldn’t get anything under 200,000 miles.  I had more miles than that to use but I refused to spend that many miles.  I tweeted in frustration, promising I would diversify my airline choices in the future.  A direct message came in from the airline asking if there was anything they could do to help.  I replied, rather skeptically, explaining further and adding “if you can get me there on business class for much less, I’d take it”.  Long story short, that person contacted me 2 hrs later (after various exchanges clarifying date flexibility, etc.) with an itinerary that was 150,000 via Amsterdam (trans-Atlantic leg with KLM! but 8-hr layover…) BUT it could not get me out of Bucharest to the gateway city (Paris) – I’d be on my own for that.  I was quite pleased.  I realize 90,000 was a dream especially in peak summer season so I understood  that I got as good a deal as possible.  My itinerary though does require 2 stops going over and 2 coming back BUT on the return I have to overnight in Paris anyway so I will make it a 2 night/1 day visit (I lived in Paris for 6 months many years ago so getting to stop there is like going home for me).

Getting to Moldova

Now, the only item left was getting to Moldova.  Trains are a great way to see more of a country but I was trying to maximize time in Moldova and the train ride was not a short one.  Since Iasi, Romania seemed worthseeing, I was going to fly there from Bucharest and then just return to Bucharest to join the hike group by flying out of Chisinau.  I land in Bucharest from the US at around midnight on the night of the 15th of July and catch my flight to Iasi at 11AM the next day.  Clearly I will not have time to unpack and repack for this 4 day trip so I will have to pack my bags in the US so it is a matter of leaving my hike luggage at the hotel in Bucharest and take one smaller bag for the Moldova trip.  (I am scoring a room at the JW Marriott for practically nothing!  I will stay there again the night I come back from Moldova.)

But heaven help me if the Romanian airline’s (TAROM) website wasn’t a royal pain the rear!  After many attempts, I ended up just going to good ole Expedia to book my flight and end the non-sense.  I hope the experience with TAROM is not a sign of things to come!

Bucharest

Sadly, I will only have one good day to see Bucharest so I will book some sort of tour to be efficient about seeing the key sights.  I hate not getting to spend more time and get a feel for the city but checking Iasi and Moldova out seemed more off the beaten path and that will always trump other options!

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So with less than 2 weeks to go, I am slightly daunted by the logistics of packing up all the right things for a hike in the mountains:  do I have all the things I need (they gave us a gear list but still trying to decide what to buy, what to borrow, and whether to buy cheap alternatives or the real things…), which bags are the ideal bags (my huge backpacker backpack, a duffel bag, etc. considering the multiple plane changes and the darn hiking poles), and how to strategically pack my bags.

However, any anxiety or eagerness to resolve all these pales in comparison with the excitement about the hike, the orphanage we are working with, and the sights and sounds I am about to experience in this corner of Eastern Europe!