Romania Travel

A Tale of Two Churches in Curtea de Argeş, Romania

Just about 2 ½ hours by car (155 km) from Bucharest are two very interesting churches, located in the town of Curtea de Argeş. Curtea de Argeş is the gateway to Poienari Castle (about 25 km north) and the Făgăraş Mountains (the Transylvanian Alps). One church, called the St. Nicholas Princely Court Church is the “oldest monument preserved in its original form in Wallachia” (this region of Romania) and the other is the Curtea de Argeş Monastery, a small “Taj – Mahal” like church (ok, not quite the Taj Mahal, but its exterior is still an example of amazing marble work) where the kings of modern Romania are buried.

The beautiful marble exterior of the Curtea de Arges Monastery.

The beautiful marble exterior of the Curtea de Arges Monastery.

Exterior view of St. Nicholas Princely Church.

Exterior view of St. Nicholas Princely Church.

St. Nicholas Princely Church

Curtea de Argeş was the seat of Romanian princes of Wallachia, and hence the name of this church. If you are a student of Byzantine religious history and artwork, St. Nicholas Princely Church is on your must-do list, it is one of the most important ecclesiastical buildings of its time. Completed in the 14th century (1340-1352), it has intact Byzantine frescoes from 1364-1369. A very nice gentleman gave us an impromptu tour—the church had just closed and he reopened it for us, he was a wealth of knowledge. The style of frescoes in this church is a mix of Italian and Byzantine influences, and many important priceless artifacts were found in the 14 tombs (buried on the church grounds) of the local ruling class, which are now in museums in Bucharest. The church is in the shape of Greek cross. There was a fee of 6 lei per person (about $2 USD).

A view of the highly decorated interior of St. Nicholas Church.

A view of the highly decorated interior of St. Nicholas Church.

The frescoed wall above the church entrance.

The frescoed wall above the church entrance.

It may be hard to tell, but this is looking straight up at the cupola of the church.

It may be hard to tell, but this is looking straight up at the cupola of the church.

Curtea de Argeş Monastery

This monastery was originally built 1512 – 1521, with marble from Constantinople (Istanbul). Legend has it that the master stonemason’s wife is buried within the walls; it was a local custom that the mason had to bury a loved one alive in the church to ensure the success of his work, since ghosts were believed to keep buildings from collapsing. If you built many structures, you might run out of loved ones to bury—what a sad tale. The monastery had to be largely rebuilt in 1875, after years of neglect.

A view of the exterior of the Curtea de Arges Monastery.

A view of the exterior of the Curtea de Arges Monastery.

An interior view of the monastery.

An interior view of the monastery.

Another view of the interior of the monastery.

Another view of the interior of the monastery.

The church contains royal tombs–two kings and queens tombs lie here, King Carol (the first king of Romania) and his wife Elizabeth (the builders of the incredible Peleş Castle), and King Ferdinand and Queen Marie (granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England).  It was difficult to get photos in this church due to restrictions. The monastery is free.

References: Lonely Planet Romania Guide, 2010; Rough Guide Romania, 2008.

Sights of Bucharest, Romania

At the end of our wonderful trip to Romania, we spent a couple days exploring Bucharest. We stayed in an apartment on the south side of the city, within walking distance to one of the main squares (Piata Unirii) where the tourist “hop on, hop off” buses depart (25 lei per person for the round trip), and close to several sights. The Bucharest airport is on the north side of the city, about 30 minutes from downtown.

On the open-air hop on, hop off bus tour of Bucharest.

On the open-air hop on, hop off bus tour of Bucharest.

Bucharest's Triumphal Arch. Built in 1935 to commemorate the reunification of Romania in 1918. For a fee,you can climb to the top.

Paris? No, but almost – Bucharest’s Triumphal Arch. Built in 1935 to commemorate the reunification of Romania in 1918. For a fee, you can climb to the top.

The Romanians love the late Michael Jackson, even though when here on tour he said "Hello Budapest, I'm so glad to be here." Oops.

The Romanians love the late Michael Jackson, even though when here on tour he said “Hello Budapest, I’m so glad to be here.” Oops.

Having been to many European capitals I will admit that Bucharest doesn’t make my top 10; however, it still has a number of interesting sights, the two primary ones being the Parliament Palace and the Village Museum. I will cover the Village Museum in a separate post.

Palace of Parliament

The front view of the Palace of Parliament.

The front view of the Palace of Parliament.

“Huge” is an understatement. The Palace of the Parliament is the 2nd largest building in the world after the Pentagon, and was built in 1984 in the latter days of the Communist Regime under the dictator Ceauşescu.  On our tour we saw less than 2% of the building. It is 12 stories high, has 1,100 rooms and four underground levels including a nuclear bunker. About 20,000 workers labored around the clock to build it in 5 years.

One of the grand hallways in the Palace.

One of the hallways in the Palace.

One massive staircase had to be rebuilt 3 times before Ceauşescu was satisfied. The saddest part is that for the cost of this immense building much could have been done to help the very poor average Romanian at the time.

One of the grand staircases in the Palace.

A grand staircase in the Palace.

One of the grand reception rooms in the Palace.

One of the Palace’s reception rooms in which foreign dignitaries were met.

The 2.5 ton chandelier in the Human Rights Hall of the Palace.

The 2.5 ton chandelier in the Human Rights Hall of the Palace.

Tips on visiting the Palace: Tours are conducted regularly and advance reservations are generally required. We lucked in to an English-speaking tour without reservations by arriving about 45 minutes early in the off season (May). Since this is still a functioning government building, they are very strict in regards to picture taking—security cameras are everywhere, and wandering off from the tour group is not allowed. Not wanting to spend time in a Romanian prison, I paid attention to our tour guide’s requirements. The cost was 25 lei per person plus 30 lei for a photography pass (about 3 lei per USD).

Looking east from the famous balcony of the Palace, towards the Piata Constitutiei.

Looking east from the famous balcony of the Palace, towards the Piata Constitutiei.

Bucharest’s Old Quarter

Another interesting area undergoing refurbishment is the city’s old quarter, not far from the Palace. There are many restaurants here, and a few historical sites such as the Princely Old Court Church, and some 15th century ruins.

Princely Old Court Church - the oldest church in Bucharest (1500's).

Princely Old Court Church – the oldest church in Bucharest (1500’s). There are excellent frescoes in this church.

The old quarter of Bucharest.

The old quarter of Bucharest.

Poienari Castle – The Real ‘Dracula’ Castle

Road sign to Poienari Castle-just 1.7 km to the parking area.

After paying the entrance fee the castle comes into view, with only about 150 more steps to go!

North of the town of Curtea Argeş in Wallachia, Romania (about 153 km from Bucharest, for a map click here) are the ruins of Poienari Castle, also known as the Fortress of Vlad Ţepeş. In 1457 (or thereabouts) Vlad “The Impaler” Ţepeş forced Turkish traitors, captured from Târgovişte in western Romania to build this castle. The Turks had supported the invasion of the country by Iancu de Hunedoara (see my post on Corvin Castle in Hunedoara). The story says that Vlad had the town’s people rounded up, and after killing the older people and throwing their bodies around the outskirts of the town, he then marched the younger men and women to Poienari where he put them to work building this castle at the top of a very narrow steep ridge, near the Transylvanian Alps. The square tower was built first and the walls were built later.

At the entrance to the castle ruins, with my poor impaled friends just behind me and to my right.

My son, Sean, on the walls of Poienari Castle.

Vlad the Impaler’s father was ‘Vlad Dracul’ (‘Drăculea’ means ‘son of Dracul’) and this is where the myth begins. Vlad the Impaler was a prince and a ruler of Wallachia in the 1400’s, and was known for extreme cruelty to his enemies (including impaling his victims in such a way that death took 48 hours to relieve the victim), but he did not drink blood nor turn into a bat.

How Vlad earned his nickname–I can think of better ways to die.

The Square Tower–believed to be Vlad Tepes residence at the castle.

The castle fell into disuse by the latter half of the 16thcentury. It commands a strategic view of the area—looking north towards Transylvania and south to Wallachia. From the parking lot, there are 1,480 steps up to the Castle, but don’t let these steps put you off. The steps are short, and even being out of shape, I made it up to the top in about 30 minutes, doing my best to keep up with my son.

The view looking north to Transylvania from Poenari Castle.

There isn’t too much left of the castle, but it’s worth a visit, partly for the view and also because this was an actual home of Vlad Ţepeş. The entry fee of 5 lei (3.5 lei to 1 USD) is paid to an attendant near the top, where postcards and other memorabilia can be purchased. Bring plenty of water to drink along the way.

References: Rough Guide to Romania 2010 and Lonely Planet Romania 2010.

Horezu Monastery—A Great Example of the Brâncovenesc Style of Architecture

The entrance to Horezu Monastery.

From Hunedoara and Corvin Castle we drove southeast to Horezu (via Târgu Jiu and an incredibly narrow mountain river gorge). Horezu, in the region of Wallachia, Romania is home to Horezu Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The monastery is located just a few kilometers outside the village of Horezu–known for its brown pottery.

Horezu Monastery is about 136 miles northwest of Bucharest.

The monastery was founded in 1690, during the reign of Constantin Brâncoveanu (1654-1714). Brâncoveanu brought about a cultural renaissance to Wallachia. He met an unfortunate end to his life by being arrested, tortured and executed in Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1714, along with his four sons. He and his sons were declared saints and martyrs of the Romanian Orthodox Church in 1992. His work at Horezu gave him immortality by becoming the center and most famous example of an architectural style he established, now known as Brâncovenesc, which combines Western (Venetian) and Oriental (Ottoman) influences.

View of the Great Church, with its ten-pillared porchway.

A Brancoveanu porch with a stone balustrade carved with animal motifs.

In the 17th and 18thcenturies, the Horezu monastery was a prestigious fresco-painting school. In the Great Church one can see why. This Church, dedicated to the Roman Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena, contains outstanding frescoes which are original from 1694, although they were blackened by the smoke of fires of Turkish slaves who camped here (and thankfully now restored). I loved the frescoes in the main chapel and also in the refectory. There is no entry fee to the monastery.

Interior of the Great Church.

The frescoes inside the Refectory.

In the summer, the monastery opens 20 rooms for guests, so if you’ve ever wanted to live the life of monk, this is your chance. Keep in mind no food is served, so bring your own or be prepared to go back into town.

A building with interesting construction techniques just outside the monastery–note the walls.

The little town of Horezu had an interesting church with great frescoes.

A little church in the village of Horezu–also beautifully decorated inside and out with frescoes.

The ceiling of the porch in the little church in Horezu village.

We stayed in a lovely pension in Horezu, called Pension Criveanu.

Our pension in Horezu, Romania.

Corvin Castle—The best castle that (nearly) no one will see

The main entrance to Corvin Castle.

One of the best castles in Romania is Corvin, a 14th century castle located in the city of Hunedoara, at the western edge of Transylvania. This castle receives few visitors since it is a bit off the beaten path in Transylvania and since Romania in general is off the beaten path. We drove to Hunedoara from Sibiu, which took about 2 hours. The castle is at the western edge of the city, on a slight hill. The city of Hunedoara has a communist-era feel owing to several old (closed) steel mills located here due to the iron ore in the nearby hills. The iron deposits were even known by the Romans. For a map of locations visited in Romania click here.

The Council Hall of Corvin Castle.

The chapel at Corvin Castle.

The eerie unrestored part of Corvin Castle–Dracula would be right at home!

The castle and the town get their names from two kings (Ioan Huneadoara and his son, Matthias Corvinus), considered among the greatest Hungarian rulers of Transylvania.

A statue of Ioan of Hunedoara, the Hungarian King responsible for the rebuilding of Corvin Castle in 1453, the town where the castle is located bears his name.

In the 14th century, Turkish prisoners had the fun job of hewing the castle walls out of solid rock. Also, in the 15thcentury, three “lucky” Turkish prisoners had to dig a well, and were promised their freedom by King Ioan after its completion. It took them 15 years to dig about 100 feet deep, when they finally found water. Ioan was dead by the time they finished, and his wife, Elisabeth, revoked the king’s promised and had the three prisoners put to death. Upon learning their fate, one of them wrote on a stone in the well: “You may have water but you have no soul.” I wonder if those words haunted Elisabeth.

The inner courtyard of Corvin Castle.

The Mace Tower, Corvin Castle. Note the traces of 15th century frescoes on the outside.

The Knights Hall at Corvin Castle.

One more view of Corvin…a classic castle, with a long drawbridge over the huge moat.

Jules Verne thought enough of this castle to include it in his book, Around the Word in 80 Days, in 1873. It is one of the great medieval castles in Europe. The entrance fee was 10 lei (3.3 lei to the US dollar) and a photo pass was 5 lei.

We noticed these very unique metal roofs all over Hundedoara. Hungarian influence?

References: Informational signs throughout Corvin Castle.

Sibiu – The Red Fortress City

In southwestern Transylvania, Romania lies the city of Sibiu. It got the name of the ‘Red Fortress’ due to the massive red brick walls built to protect the city after 1241. The walls encircling the town were four kilometers in length, and had 39 towers, a number of which still survive. For a map of locations visited in Romania, click here.

The 15th century defensive walls on the southern side of Sibiu, with the Tower of the Potters.

The EU designated Sibiu the “Capital of Culture” in 2007 and gave the city a facelift. The heart of the old city reminded me a bit of Austria, and since it was part of the Hapsburg empire for most of the 1700’s and part of the 1800’s, it’s no wonder why. The old center has an upper and lower section, and the upper section has been largely pedestrianized, making the walk through the squares a delight.

Student art project on the Piaţa Mare.

A three-eyed roof staring at us! This unique style of windows in the roof is common in Sibiu.

There are three interlocking squares in the upper old town, Piaţas Mare, Huet, and Mică, all flanked by baroque palaces and other buildings.

A view of the 14th century Evangelical church and Piaţa Huet from the Council Tower.

The old Council Tower (rebuilt in 1588) in the upper old town.

A view of Piaţa Mare from the top of the Council Tower.

Steps from lower town to the upper town.

Although we just stayed overnight, Sibiu would be a great alternative base to Braşov for exploring Transylvania. We stayed in the tiny village of Talmacel, about 15km south of Sibiu, at the Guesthouse Rustic (not that rustic!).

The Guesthouse Rustic in Talmacel, about 15 km south of Sibiu. Good quiet room.

Be forwarned that this village was not on “Google Maps” as of May 2012. We loved the pension, and enjoyed watching the cows coming home through the village streets below our room.

The cows coming home on the village street below our pension room.

Sighişoara, Romania – Birthplace of “Dracula”

A view of Sighişoara and surrounding countryside.

Sighişoara is the best-preserved medieval city in Transylvania. Vlad “The Impaler” Ţepeş (“Dracula”) was born here in 1431, his father being “Vlad Dracul,” a member of the “Order of the Dragon.”  For a map of locations we visited in Romania, click here.

The plaque on Vlad Dracul’s home, the birthplace of Vlad “The Impaler” Ţepeş.

Vlad “The Impaler” Ţepeş birthplace, the yellow house on the left.

The origins of the town date back to Roman times, and German Saxons moved here during the 12th century, being promised autonomy in return for defending Transylvania from the Ottomans. About 500 Germans still live here. The towers (9 of them remain) and walls surrounding the old town are from the 14th and 15thcenturies. You can walk around the old town in less than an hour, although there are some interesting museums and churches to visit also. We enjoyed exploring the old narrow lanes and towers. This town has the perfect look for a “Dracula” movie.

The main entrance to the old citadel of Sighişoara, under the Clock Tower built in the 14th century.

In medieval times, Sighişoara was in a good location for defensive purposes, situated on a hill surrounded the Târnava Mare river, and between the cities of Braşov and Sibiu. When the town came under siege, the alarm was given by a big bell.  Everyone had a specific duty to contribute to the protection of the town, based on their training over the years. The craftsmen would fight from the fortress walls and towers, the women and children would prepare hot water and pitch which they would throw upon the heads of the attackers, the old men would give advice and the old women would take care of the wounded. Each guild had a tower that it built and defended.

The Tinsmith’s Tower and defensive walls of Sighişoara.

The Bootmaker’s Tower.

Built in 1666, The Covered Staircase has 173 steps leading up to a school and the 13th century “Church on the hill.”

Practicalities. We stayed in a small pension just outside the old citadel, called Pensiune Citadela Sighişoara, which can be found on booking.com.

The Pensiune Citadela Sighişoara is on the right, with our car parked in front.

This pension was in an excellent location and had decent rooms with exposed old wooden beams, which gave our accomodation a medieval feel. There is a tourist information office just across the street from Vlad Ţepeş’ home (now a restaurant). We ate a very good dinner at the “Stag House” or Casa cu Cerb, just a hundred feet from Vlad Ţepeş’s home, which is also a hotel. Prince Charles of the United Kingdom stayed here in 2002.

The Casa cu Cerb (hotel and restaurant) is the white building on the right.

The Piaţa Cetăţii is the geographical center of the town, and is the citadel’s main thoroughfare.  The first homes were built around this square.

Piaţa Cetăţii, the main old town square.

In need of marriage counseling? Visit Biertan!

The grandest of the fortified churches in Transylvania – a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If your marriage or partnership is suffering, visit Biertan fortified church in Transylvania. There is a room here where couples would be banished for two weeks in medieval times to work out their differences.  The room contained only one small bed and one set of cutlery. In 400 years, only one couple went through with divorce—not a bad rate of success!

The Lonely Planet Romania Travel Guide advises you to save this fortified church for last, if you are visiting several. We followed their advice, and I understand why now. Biertan is a picture-perfect fortified church in the village of Biertan, sitting on a small hill, surrounded by higher hills. Having taken a little detour from Sighişoara (Biertan is 27 km southwest of Sighisoara), we arrived from the south, and followed a dirt road into the village. For a map of our route in Romania click here.

The inside of Biertan church – the altarpiece paintings are from 1483-1515.

The frescoes inside one of the towers surrounding the church.

The church was built in the 15th century and is surrounded by walls and towers and has an old covered stairway climbing from the main square of the village up to the church.

Gravestones of the Lutheran bishops who served here from 1572 to 1867 are located in this tower.

One of the towers surrounding the church.

A view of the church from Biertan village square.

The sacristy door lock – 19 locks in one! A marvel of engineering that won first prize at the Paris World Expo in 1900. The church’s treasures were behind this door.

Leaving Biertan to the north, the road is paved to the main highway (Highway 14) connecting Sighişoara to Sibiu.

A view of Biertan village from the church, looking south.

If you only have time to visit one fortified church in Transylvania, this is the one. The entry fee is 8 lei per person (about 3.3 lei per US dollar).

See my post “The Fortified Churches of Harman and Prejmer” for a short background on fortified churches in Transylvania. Other references: Lonely Planet-Romania 2010 & Rough Guide – Romania 2010.

Viscri – A Seemingly Untouched Romanian Village and Fortified Church

This little village and fortified church were on my list of favorite spots in Romania. The village feels secluded and remote, and the church doesn’t appear to have changed in hundreds of years. This place felt like the “real Europe” and one can quickly imagine what life was like here hundreds of years ago. The village has very few cars and no paved streets (one street was cobblestone). The church is visible as you drive into town, just follow your nose to find it. For a map of main sites visited in Romania click here.

The fortified church of Viscri.

Walking up to the entrance of Viscri fortified church.

While Viscri is not far (only 7 km) off the main route (E60) between Braşov and Sighişoara, the road is a bit rough—a combination of rough, broken pavement and gravel. Since there are few cars in Viscri, the locals probably don’t care that the road is not in the best shape, and the more difficult access means less visitors messing up the place! The only practical way to visit Viscri is with a rental car. The church is 13thcentury, and hasn’t changed much in the last 400 years; the old painted wood loft railings and creaky stairways are original from the 1600’s.

The interior of the Viscri fortified church–frozen in time.

At the top of the Viscri church tower, trying not to fall through the floor boards.

My son and I climbed up the tower of the church, through narrow stone stairways and over wooden boards where we had to watch our step or take a chance on falling through!  The fortified walls, built in 1525, contain storage areas and farm tools from many years ago.  There was an entry fee of 4 lei per person.

Inside the walls of Viscri fortified church.

A view of the village of Viscri and surrounding area from the tower of the church.

The village population consists of a few Saxons and mainly Roma (Gypsy).  We saw some displays of woolen socks as well as other woolen items (hats, etc.), and read afterwards that making these items is a major cottage industry of the village, exporting many of their hand-made goods to Germany.

A typical scene in Viscri.

You pass through the village of Bunesti on the way to Viscri – a view of rural life in Romania.

New home construction in Bunesti.

Children in the village of Bunesti pose for their picture.

See my post “The Fortified Churches of Harman and Prejmer” for a short background on fortified churches in Transylvania. Other references: Lonely Planet-Romania 2010 & Rough Guide – Romania 2010.

The Fortified Churches of Hărman and Prejmer

A great day trip from Braşov is visiting the fortified churches in Harman and Prejmer, towns that still retain their Saxon roots. We visited these churches as we left Braşov before heading to Sighişoara. The easiest way to visit these towns is by rental car, but it’s also possible by train or bus. Hărman is not open Monday and Prejmer is not open Sunday, so if you want to do both, you’ll need to visit Tuesday—Saturday. For a map of sites visited in Romania click here.

Exterior view of Harman fortified church with the walls and towers.

Fortified churches are a unique feature of Transylvania, and there are 280 in Transylvania. Each one has its own different style, but common features include high surrounding walls (sometimes several concentric rings) usually with towers, a church in the center of the fortifications, often with its own tower, and rooms for provisions in case of attack and sometimes boarding rooms for the villagers inside the walls—these fortifications often look like a combination of a castle and church. A whole trip could be spent just visiting these wonderful sights, and maps are available that show driving tours of these churches, which are often in little villages. The two listed here are close to Braşov and close together. Their purpose during medieval times was to provide safety to the villagers in times of attack, often from the Ottomans as they sought to expand their empire westward.

Hărman

The church at Hărman dates back to 1240, the belfry tower was added in the 14thcentury, and the walls were constructed in the 15th century.

Even the church had exterior rooms for protection–ladders could be pulled up.

In addition to the church, the fortifications retain part of the interior living and storage rooms along the walls, giving a feel to what the internal fortifications looked like.

The storage and living quarters along the inside walls.

You can visit some of the rooms and dark walkway around the wall which haven’t changed much from their original state. In the church, women would sit in the center pews and the men on the side pews, in case of attack the women would be in the center protected by the men surrounding them.

The pews where the women would sit in the church.

The men would sit in these side pews to protect the women.

It would have been quite a life to constantly worry about your village being attacked by the Ottomans.  The walls originally had a moat around them, and part of it is still visible.

The caretakers of this church are German, descendants of the Saxons who settled this town.  The entry fee was 4 lei per person (about $3.25).

Prejmer

The village of Prejmer is more rustic than Hărman, with dirt roads in some parts of the village.

A typical street scene in Prejmer–note the horse-drawn “tractor” on the right.

The fortified church has very high walls (12-14 meters high), and given its size, it’s difficult to appreciate from the outside.

Exterior view of Prejmer fortified church.

Reinforced door at the entrance to Prejmer fortified church.

Prejmer was the most powerful peasant fortress in Transylvania. The main entrance feels like a step back in time, just like walking into a medieval village. This fortification also had a moat, which has since been filled in.

The entrance to Prejmer fortifications.

Beyond the initial entrance, there is another entrance into the interior courtyard where the church is located and surrounded by little rooms (272 of them) on four levels attached to the defensive circular walls.

The 13th century Prejmer church.

The interior shelters of Prejmer–where the villagers would live in times of pending attack.

These rooms are well-preserved, and from the courtyard the ring of rooms almost looks like a hotel, with numbers on each door. Each room was assigned to a village family. Many of the rooms are open, and they also provide access to a dark walkway running the length of the walls at the top, where guards and lookouts could be posted.

Typical living quarters inside the fortifications.

The walkway on the upper floor around the walls of Prejmer fortifications.

Some rooms were also dedicated to specific purposes–such as a school, for storage, weaving, etc. The entry fee was 8 lei per person.

A school room at Prejmer. Note the wall paintings.

As with many sites we visited in Romania, we pretty much had these places to ourselves.

References: Lonely Planet – Romania & Information at the sites.