Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Beauty and the beasts of Romania

birminghampost.net
Apr 6 2008 By John Revill

John Revill travels to the home of Dracula, Vlad the Impaler and the Cheeky Girls to see some seriously strange – and large – buildings.

For Western men, a midlife crisis purchase is sometimes a sports car. Not Nicolae Ceaucescu. The Romanian dictator probably had a garage full anyway, so when he began to fear his own mortality (and maybe his appeal to the opposite sex) he set about building the Palace of the People.

Inspired by a visit to another small dictator – Kim Il Sung of North Korea – he set about building the vast edifice in 1986.

The building, which is now called the Palace of the Parliaments, is in fact the second biggest building in the world after the Pentagon in Washington.

So while many of his countrymen starved and the rest of Romania went to wrack and ruin, he set about building huge monument to his own vanity.

Sadly for him, he didn’t get to see it completed (or rather the teams of workers who were drafted in to work there 24 hours a day, every day) as he was overthrown and executed in 1989 before it was finished.

In fact, according to my tour guide, there are some rooms which aren’t quite finished yet.

Still, the building is certainly impressive: 1,000 odd rooms, and one ballroom which apparently has a sliding roof to enable a helicopter to land there.

Gigantic chandeliers and an indoor theatre and balcony – all constructed from Romanian marble and replete with gold and leather, add to the opulent but strange emptiness.

Large alcoves where huge pictures of Nicolae and his delightful wife were supposed to hang are now empty.

There are also innumerable boardrooms with gigantic tables, leather chairs and intercom so the members can hear themselves speak.

These in particular seemed like something from James Bond or Austin Powers; you could imagine members of Smersh or Dr Evil meeting up here to plot the takeover of the world or extort $1 million.

Nowadays, the Palace, is home to the Romanian parliament as well as much of the state’s bureaucracy. It also hosts the odd reception and even weddings, which is nice.

Also in Bucharest is Snagov Monastry, which is supposed to be the last resting place of Vlad the Impaler, a prince of Wallachia (a part of medieval Romania) in the 15th Century.

Vlad earned his nickname from his delightful manner with Turkish prisoners, who he had impaled on large stakes.

Such behaviour would probably brand him a war criminal nowadays, but he went on to become the inspiration for another famous Romanian – Dracula.

During a rapid weekend, I also managed to take in two other monuments from Rumania’s past.

Bran Castle is supposedly the inspiration for Castle Dracula – well, the author Bram Stoker passed by when travelling through Transylvania and was told this was where Vlad lived.

It wasn’t, it was more of an outpost on the trading route between Vienna and Constantinople and intended to hold out against bandits and Turks.

But this hasn’t stopped the locals from cashing in, with Dracula mugs, T-shirts and snowstorms.

Still, the castle, which looms over the town was never captured, and was certainly more of a working base than Peles Castle.

This was the more sedate affair, constructed over many years to act as the summer residence for King Carol, the first king of the united and independent Romania in the late 19th Century.

Carol, who came from Germany, knew a bit about castles – being born in one, so this one had to be a bit special, and it is.

The palace was established to benefit from the cooler air of the Carpathian mountains, which hang in the background and give a spectacular backdrop to it.

Driving by a cross, erected on one peak as a monument to the Romanian dead from the First World War, emerged from the clouds.

And then it is back to Bucharest and the Marriott hotel where I stayed.

On the rickety road back I was thinking about the various Romanians I had popped in on and how strange it must be for a country whose top five most famous people – Ceaucescu, Vlad, Dracula and both of the Cheeky Girls, are all a bit evil.

Alright, the Cheeky Girls may not be exactly evil, but you know what I mean.

As well as the weird and wonderful buildings, I also paid a visit to a crafts market set up in a replica medieval village.

Imagining an onslaught of tat, instead I was presented with local gingerbreads, wines, clothes, and wooden-wares.

Bucharest itself little further afield than other eastern European capitals, but this may prove a defence against stag and hen parties which have over-run Budapest and Prague of late.

I think Prince Vlad, and his love of foreigners, would have approved.

FACTBOX
• Lufthansa operates 73 weekly flights connections from Birmingham via Frankfurt, Munich and Dusseldorf to Romania (Bucharest, Timisoara and Sibiu).
• 2007 marked the 40th anniversary of Lufthansa services to Romania.
• Fares from Birmingham to Bucharest start at £189 (economy class) and £800 (Business class.)
• Further info is available on-line at www.lufthansa.com
John Revill stayed at the Marriott hotel in Buchraest, where a deluxe room is 370 euros excluding breakfast and taxes.
• Special rates and offers apply during low season periods, like summer time (July 15 to August 30).

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