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Thursday, January 7, 2010
Top 10 places to visit in Romania
1. The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina - Moldovita, Voronet, Humor and Sucevita are the four main monasteries, which rank among some of Europe's greatest cultural monuments. Each is painted with bright frescoes not only on the interior walls, but on the exterior walls as well. The remarkable state of preservation of these outdoor frescoes after 500 years of snow and rain is what makes them memorable - the red tones of Humor, the Blue of Voronet, the yellow of Moldovita and the green of Sucevita make each of them rather like a giant biblical colouring book. The frescoes were painted at a time when christian armies gathered to fight the invading Ottoman Turks, and these armies would stay sheltered inside the protective walls of these monasteries. To keep the bored soldiers entertained, and to keep their religious passions running high, biblical scenes and scenes from the lives of saints were painted on the outside of the churches, where they could be more easily viewed by the soldiers. Many frescoes show saints being beheaded by Turks, and one memorable panel at Moldovita shows the siege of Constantinople by the Turkish armies. The Last Judgement wall at Voronet is generally considered to be the finest of the frescoes, although in my opinion the most spectacular is the wall at Sucevita depicting the ladder to be climbed to heaven with the aid of the angels flying above and over the temptations of the many devils that lie below. The monasteries of Dragomirna and Putna are less visually impressive than the 'big four' monasteries, but are also worth visiting.
2. Sighisoara - the grandest small town in Transylvania, with the added incentive of being the birthplace of Vlad Tepes (Dracula). A hilltop medieval citadel sits at the heart of things, packed with atmospheric laneways beyond a highly impressive stone gate tower that evokes thoughts of wooden stakes and bats flying out on a moonlit night.
3. The traditional villages and wooden churches of Maramures region - simply like going back in time, this region feels a world apart even from the rest of Romania. Horses and carts are a major form of transport, and traditional costumes are still worn by many, not only the elderly. Cultural heritage isn't practised for the tourists, it is represented in daily life; villagers go out to work in the fields by hand, and continue to live much as their ancestors did, often without any modern conveniences. The region has several dominant architectural features, the first being large, decorative wooden gates in front of people's houses, meant to reflect the family's wealth and stature to those passing on the road. The second is the abundance of beautiful wooden churches with tall, shingled steeples, some dating back six hundred years.
4. The fortified Saxon churches of Transylvania - Biertan is the finest of these, with a brooding church and towers perched on the hill in the centre of the village. Viscri is also recommended; both are pretty much impossible to reach without a car - hiring a driver for the day in Sighisoara is a good option.
5. Sibiu - The most vibrant medieval old town centre in the country, and with the most highly developed cultural scene outside the capital. Much of the historic centre was given a face-lift for the year the city held the title of European City of Culture in 2007, and much of that event's dynamic energy remains. The city feels much more like central Europe than any other Romanian city.
6. The Danube Delta - a corner of the country unlike any other, with endless opportunities for wildlife watching while zipping about between villages by boat. The highlight is to visit the end of the Delta and the small town of Sulina.
7. Brasov - The most popular destination in Transylvania, and a base for visits to Bran and Rasnov castles, Peles palace in Sinaia, and the fortified churches of Prejmer and Harman. The city has a pleasingly unrestored medieval quarter, surrounded by steep forested hills to either side. The huge 'Brasov' sign on the hillside above is intended to evoke Hollywood, but they stole the idea from the Romanian city of Deva, who came up with the idea first.
8. The Merry Cemetery in Sapanta - so much more than just a cemetery, this is a place of beauty, representing a love of life through its sense of grace and gentle humour. Each of the graves is indicated with a brightly-painted blue wooden marker, each with a carved and painted picture depicting the occupation the person had, or in some cases, how they met their end - several show car crashes, and one portrays a man drinking and smoking while being pulled downwards by a demon. Other notable markers to look for include one showing a church construction worker being struck by lightning, and the grave of the original maker of many of the markers, Stan Ioan Pătraş. Each marker also has a poem below the person's picture, usually telling something about that person's life and often making a light-hearted joke about them.
9. Bucharest - worth visiting to see the massive Palace of the Parliament, which can be viewed on a jaw-dropping guided tour of the interior. Another important stop is Revolution square, the site of the mass protests that resulted in the toppling of Ceauşescu. It's also intriguing to go church-spotting in the back lanes tucked out of sight behind all the grand communist edifices lining the main boulevards.
10. Hunedoara - Contains the country's most spectacular castle, cast against a backdrop of ugly abandoned factories and steel mills. This is the perfect place to get a feel for what life must have felt like under Ceauşescu, and to gain an understanding for how that wound is slowly being healed. The castle was left to decay during socialism, as the castle's long Hungarian history didn't sit well with Ceauşescu. Now it is his factories that are slowly collapsing into rubble, and the castle is gradually being repaired and restored to its former glory.