Roman(ian) Holiday

 

Last weekend Dave and I set off for Bucharest, Romania; part of our continuing quest to explore parts of the world easy to get to from Israel. We met up with our friends Monica and Mihai; Dave worked with Monica about 5 years ago so it was great to see them again!

The first day, I had booked a tour guide for a walking tour of Bucharest. There are a few areas that were saved from the huge communist apartments blocks; they are charming, with a somewhat Parisian feel.

Today these areas are being treated as the national treasure they are. Older unsafe buildings are hollowed out and the shell is reinforced internally preserve it before a modern building is build inside. This building had no backside and was only about 6-9” thick!

Next we saw the remains of the ancient castle of Vlad Tepes, the man behind the Dracula legend. While most of the legend was a product of Bram Stoker’s imagination and Hollywood magic; he was a much-feared ruler who effectively kept the peace through his legendary methods of execution (warning: not for those of weak stomach!) His bust is in the center of the courtyard below. He also pioneered the use of subterranean construction for living and storage spaces.

 

We also visited quite a few Romanian Orthodox Churches, which have beautiful frescoes inside that were originally used to teach the stories of the bible to worshippers since many in the lower classes could not read. The walls and ceilings are covered in beautiful illustrations, with gold leaf highlighting the woodwork.

 

We also visited two synagogues, the Coral Temple, which was under renovation at the time, and the United Holy Temple, which now houses a Jewish history and Holocaust museum.

 

The tour wrapped up with lunch at a restaurant called Caru’ cu Bere, meaning “wagon with beer”, apropos since it is the site of an old brewery (they still brew, just offsite.) We had mititei, much like the ground meat kebabs we get here in Israel, with mustard and tiny pan-fried whole potatoes; paired with a frosty mug of the house draft beer – the perfect apres tour meal!

Dave and I set off to walk the 1/2 hour back to the hotel and ended up getting lost much better than any previous attempt! 3 1/2 hours later we hailed a taxi and discovered we were 7 km away from where we thought we were! After freshening up, our friends took us out for a local dinner at Terasa Doamnei. I had stuffed cabbage rolls with polenta – delicious. We drank a local wine that our tour guide had recommended earlier in the day, a Feteasca Neagra from Dealu Marae (also known as Big Hill, the English translation of the winery’s name.) There was a show during dinner; at different times the performers wore costumes representing each of the different cultures and regions of Romania. The clip below is from the gypsy portion of the show:

The next morning Mihai and Monica picked us up bright and early to head north to Transylvania. We toured Bran Castle and did a bit of souvenir shopping. The funny thing was that while the local merchants have capitalized on the Dracula legend, the castle itself has stayed refreshingly true to history, displaying artifacts from Queen Marie’s time.

After a snack of donuts and a jam-filled crepe (yummy!) we headed south to Peles Castle in Sinaia. Monica had arranged a private tour with an old friend working at the castle. I was able to get a photography pass to wear around my neck, allowing me to shoot the amazing interior without flash. It is kept fairly dimly lit inside, but thankfully my Sony Alpha takes amazing low light pictures!

 

I loved the fairytale exterior! The castle was originally built for receiving guests, and it shows in the welcoming design and grand interior spaces. It was fully electrically wired when it was built between 1875 and 1914; the stained glass skylight below is actually a sunroof that opens on a metal track to refresh the air in the great hall below. There is also a built-in vacuum system that is still functional to this day; which pains me greatly since the one in my rental house here, built in 1992, is completely worthless!

The grand dining hall. What a spectacular table setting! Our guide said everything in the castle gets dusted once a week, from the china to the woodwork.

This whole room was done with an Asian theme – of course I was ready to move right in!

The Queen’s private study. Above the doorway I stood in to take the picture was a balcony library. I think I could blog much better in these surroundings!

 

After the castle we had a late lunch at a ski-chalet themed restaurant and headed south through the Prahova Valley back to Bucharest. Along the way we stopped to check out several locals selling honey, but couldn’t find any that was labeled. I couldn’t see El Al letting me carry an unmarked jar of viscous liquid onto the plane, even in my checked baggage. Dave managed to find the stinkiest wheel of smoked cheese known to mankind; which we had to keep on the window ledge outside the hotel room because it was smelling up the room!

When we got back to our hotel (the JW Marriott) we decided to explore the casino in the basement. To our surprise, it was full of Israelis! After a few drinks, I got up enough courage to try out my Hebrew on a group that we were playing blackjack with and we ended up having a fun time!

The next day we got up quite late and caught a taxi to the Village Museum – it was really neat to see all the old machinery and buildings that have been moved from around the country to save them from new construction. Below is a wine press:

 

For lunch we headed to our home away from home, the Hard Rock Cafe.  They had one of Tina Turner’s fur coats on display, as well as some early Michael Jackson stuff (remember the jacket with the silver mesh shoulders?) We walked partway back to the hotel, part the Arcul de Triumf, which looked strangely familiar 🙂

We caught a taxi the rest of the way back and took a nap before checking out of the hotel. Our flight home wasn’t until 9pm, so we killed some time in the American-style sports bar in the hotel, and found a dress for me to wear to the upcoming wedding of some friends of ours (paid for with blackjack winnings!)

The chauffeured Mercedes that the hotel sent as our ride back to the airport was a nice ending to a wonderful trip!

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