Bucharest, like many cities in Eastern Europe, is a mix of old and new. Much of the cities were largely destroyed during decades of war in the 20th century. In some instances, war-torn buildings have been rebuilt, but oftentimes the ruins are left as haunting reminders of the past. The hotel we stayed at on our first night in Romania is the perfect example of this juxtaposition – the ruins of a bombed out theatre served as the entrance, with a modern-day skyscraper built to accommodate hundreds of guests.
While we didn’t have a room with a view, the hotel was located in the heart of the city.
As I learned during my 2 weeks in Eastern Europe, the region is home to the “world’s second largest” of many things. Here’s the People’s Palace, perhaps one of the most beautiful buildings erected by Romania’s Communist dictatorship, which is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon.
Romania is divided into 3 regions – Wallachia in the south, Moldavia in the east, and Transylvania in the north. After recovering from jet lag in Bucharest, we headed north to Transylvania. Along the way, we stopped to visit Peleş Castle, former summer residence of the Romanian royal family.
Our next 2 nights were spent in Braşov, one of the largest cities in Transylvania.
Here’s the view from our hotel room.
The highlight of our visit to Transylvania was a visit to Bran Castle, commonly referred to as Dracula’s Castle.
To be fair, dozens of rulers have lived in this castle since its 14th century construction. Vlad the Impaler and his father Vlad Dracul probably stayed there at some point during the 15th century, although neither of them played a significant role in the history of the castle.
Much of the castle is decorated in early 20th century décor, when Queen Marie lived there.
She loved the castle so much, that for a time her heart was buried within its walls. While her heart now resides in a museum in Bucharest, its original coffin is still at Bran.
Bran Castle, while still owned by the Romanian royal family, now largely serves as a museum – partly to dispel the vampire mythology associated with Vlad the Impaler. While historical accounts do suggest Vlad impaled many of his victims (causing them to bleed out to a slow, painful death), and even nailed helmets to the heads of those who crossed him, most Romanians I talked to consider him to be a national hero. His brutal deeds were largely targeted toward the encroaching occupation of the Ottoman Empire into region, not just senseless, random killings. The real vampire, according to the Romanians, is the 16th century Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory.
At Bran Castle, there’s also a small display of medieval torture instruments. This scale was used to determine if a woman was a witch. The accusers would guess the woman’s weight and add stones and a Bible to one side of the scale to equal their guess. The accused would sit on the opposite side, and if she was found to be lighter than the stones and Bible she was confirmed guilty.
Following our time in Transylvania, we headed south to Giurgiu to board Der Kleine Prince for a 10-day cruise on the Danube River.
Our first stop on the cruise was Vidin, Bulgaria, which we enjoyed exploring on foot.
The visit to Bulgaria culminated in a visit to the 10th century medieval fortress Baba Vidin.