Romania

Romania


Hi. I’m Rick Steves, back with more
of the best of Europe. This time, we got
plenty of horsepower for an amazing trip in Romania. -Romania!
-[ Speaks native language ] Thanks for joining us!
[ Laughs ] Romania is one of Europe’s
lesser known corners, with a rich
and fascinating history. Having come through tough times, today, it’s a member
of the European Union, clearly on the upswing and a rewarding place
to explore. Travelers experience
a land of contrasts. Its lively capital
has a modern bustle. Its mammoth palace recalls
a horrible dictator. A romantic king’s retreat
stands tall in the mountains. And medieval churches
hide behind fortified walls. While many are lured
by the Dracula myth, the reality is even more
fascinating in this complex land where a vivid folk life
still thrives. In the southeast of Europe, Romania sits where the Danube
River meets the Black Sea. Starting in Bucharest,
we visit Peles Castle, head for
the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania to visit
Brasov and Sighisoara. We finish in the traditional
region of Maramures. Romania’s capital, Bucharest, with about 2 million people, is a sprawling tangle
of buildings. It’s muscular and gritty,
hard to like at first glance. But with a thoughtful look,
it reveals its charms. Bucharest has a raw
and bracing urban energy. First-time visitors are struck by its eclectic mix
of architecture. Just wandering the streets with your neck craned up
is entertaining. The foundation
of this architectural jumble dates from the late
19th century. That’s just after Romania become a unified country
for the first time. In the 1860s, without a royal family
to call their own, the Romanians
went shopping for a king who could connect them
with the European mainstream. They found one in Germany, where a prince
looking for a throne agreed to become King Carol I
of Romania. King Carol embraced
his new homeland while bringing Western reforms and securing true
independence for Romania. Under King Carol,
Bucharest blossomed. He imported French architects to give Bucharest
a romantic allure. Today, Victory Avenue is a showcase
of the city’s belle epoque, when Bucharest was nicknamed “The Little Paris of the East.” The Avenue rumbles toward the recently rejuvenated
Old Town. Under more stately architecture, you’ll find inviting
pedestrian lanes. This is the traffic-free
heart of town. Locals enjoy a fun
and relaxing scene, and there’s almost
no tourists in sight. And the nightlife scene
is on the rise. Formerly abandoned
shopping galleries are now sweet with hookah smoke. Food trucks fill a vacant lot with late-night
sipping and socializing. If you’re looking
for fun after dark, this part of Bucharest
can feel like one big, sprawling
cocktail party. Thriving as it is today,
Bucharest’s Old Town was lucky to survive
the Communist period. Most of the historic center was wiped out by
the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu so he could build
a grandiose new town perfect for a megalomaniac. Ceausescu took power in 1965, and through his 24 year
dictatorship, his ego ballooned. He became addicted
to massive projects without budgets. After a visit to North Korea, Ceausescu returned inspired
to transform his city. He ripped out most
of Bucharest’s historical core to create this — his enormous civic center. Its wide boulevards
and stone-faced apartment blocks all have a distinctive
Pyongyang aesthetic. The culmination
of his master plan was an immense palace
with more than 1,000 rooms, fit for a dictator gone wild. Ceausescu literally
starved his people to build his dream. Over 6 years, from 1983 to ’89, thousands of laborers
worked on it 24/7. When it finally opened
to the public in 1994 — that was 5 years
after Ceausescu died — the Romanian people
were both wonderstruck and repulsed. Today, guided tours
lead gawking visitors around these vast
and empty spaces. You feel small
exploring its grand halls, huge staircases, and mega-ballrooms. Ceausescu demanded
the ideal balcony from which to deliver speeches while looking out
over his new town, and a boulevard grand enough
to match his ego. This palace and similarly
extravagant projects all around
the downtrodden country created a powerful
anti-Ceausescu sentiment that ultimately led
to his downfall. In late 1989, with winds of change
sweeping the Eastern Bloc, armed revolutions spread
across Romania. An angry populace
filled the square here in front of the Communist Party
headquarters. They arrested their dictator and shot him on Christmas Day. This monument honors
more than 1,000 Romanians who died in the struggle
to overthrow the tyrant and free their country. Today, Ceausescu feels
like ancient history, and Romania is proud to be part of
the European Union. Joining local families
on a Saturday morning in the park,
you feel optimistic. While Romania’s challenges
are significant, it’s clear the country is moving
in the right direction. Heading north for
the Carpathian Mountains, we leave Bucharest. Stunning fields of poppies
are irresistible. And this quick roadside stop
is just too joyful to pass up. Our next stop is Peles Castle, the summer residence
of Romania’s first king, Carol. Carol chose a mountainous
and forested setting that reminded him
of his German homeland. And he imported
German architects to create this fanciful
hunting lodge. Prickly, with
over-the-top spires, Peles ranks among Europe’s
finest Romantic Age palaces. And it boasts
one of the most dazzling late 19th-century interiors
anywhere. The Hall of Honor,
with its red carpets, grand staircase,
and venerable portraits, sets the tone. The woodwork is exquisite. The rest of the rooms have a grand
yet somehow cozy elegance, glittering crystal chandeliers, thoughtful touches. King Carol ruled for 48 years. When summering at the palace, he took care of matters
of state in his study. For over 30 years, the king dined with guests here. His impressive collection
of weapons and armor stoked conversation. The library showed off
the king’s passion for education. And today, more than
a century later, tourists from around
the world still marvel at King Carol’s castle. Just over
the Carpathian mountains, we cross into the fabled region
of Transylvania. “Trans-sylvania.” It means “across the forest.” And that’s literally
where we’ve gone. We’re spending the night in the handy home-base
town of Brasov, which fills a scenic
mountain valley. Most of the city’s people live in boxy Communist-era
apartment blocks, many of which have
been spiffed up. But the historic Old Town
is much more charming. It’s packed with locals
enjoying a balmy evening. Thriving and appealing,
Brasov offers a glimpse into a mid-sized Romanian city that has its act together. Among other things, Transylvania is well-known for
its rustic and wild countryside and a medieval history
with a surprising German twist. In the 12th century, Transylvania’s
Hungarian overlords needed help taming
this wild frontier. So they imported
skilled merchants and hardworking settlers
from the German lands. For that reason, you’ll find
German-speaking enclaves and delightful German towns
in this part of Romania. One of Transylvania’s
seven original German towns is Sighisoara, perhaps the most
popular tourist town in all of Romania. The old center
is entirely contained within its fortified hilltop. Several of Sighisoara’s
watchtowers still survive, and its historic centerpiece
is its clock tower, proudly trumpeting
the town’s special status in the Middle Ages. Within the town’s
protective walls, visitors explore cobbled lanes, enjoy pastel
German-style facades… …and sip beers
on the main square. Nearby, a statue honors the town’s tenuous connection with an infamous Romanian
prince, Vlad Tepes. In the 15th century, he ruthlessly fought
the Turkish Ottomans. Much later,
he became better known as the inspiration
for a vampire. Vlad had two nicknames —
Vlad the Impaler and Dracula. That means “Son of the devil.” Vlad the Impaler was brutal
in his defense of his homeland. While he didn’t drink
anyone’s blood, he was sadistic, famously impaling his victims. The popular Dracula myth
came much later. Dracula in the myth
is a fictitious vampire created centuries later by the Victorian novelist
Bram Stoker. He wrote his famous novel,
“Dracula,” after being inspired
by the tales of this bloodthirsty prince
and other local legends. Vlad the Impaler?
Important prince. Dracula the vampire?
Just a scary fairy-tale. Nevertheless, Dracula is big
business for local tourism. For many, when in Transylvania, a stop at Bran Castle
is considered a must. While people call it
Dracula’s Castle, it has virtually nothing to do
with Vlad the Impaler. But that doesn’t stop
the tourists from coming or locals from selling
their vampire kitsch. Past the tacky
souvenir gauntlet, a cobbled path curls up
to the castle entrance. Despite the fanciful legends, Bran is actually a fine example of an authentic
medieval fortress dating from the 14th century. Some of Romania’s
most memorable fortresses aren’t castles at all. They’re actually churches. While big towns
were well-fortified, smaller German villages
were vulnerable to invaders. So what did
the industrious settlers do? They fortified their churches. Dozens of fortified
German churches, mostly built in the 13th
and 14th centuries, are scattered
across Transylvania. Like other medieval fortresses, they have beefy bastions, stout lookout towers, and narrow slits for archers. Entire communities
could take refuge inside, within these wraparound
defensive galleries. This fortified church
had a room for each family. And when under attack, each family had
a defensive responsibility. Stepping inside these churches feels like stepping
into medieval Germany. Decoration was humble. Pews were simple benches. Bible quotes are in German. And to this day, the services are Lutheran. Today, most of Romania’s
ethnic Germans are gone, having emigrated
in the late 19th century or fled to Germany
after World War II. Those who remain
speak a time-warped German and work hard to keep their
unique cultural heritage alive. And the cultural heritage
of Romania is many-faceted. Appreciating the diversity of the 20 million people
who make up this country enriches your experience. The faces, as varied and beautiful
as the land itself, tell the story. Of Romania’s many people, one group in particular
has struggled to fit in — the Roma. Also known as gypsies, the Roma originated in India. They were nomads who migrated
over the centuries throughout Eastern Europe and gained a reputation
as musicians, thieves, and metalworkers. Romania has Europe’s
largest Roma population. They’ve had to abandon
their nomadic ways and face the challenge
of settling down. The classic Roma image is poor people in shanty towns. But most Roma live side by side with their Romanian neighbors, more or less fitting
into mainstream society. And many Roma carry on the traditional craft
of metalworking. We’ve been invited
in to learn more. My name is Rick. So, how many years has
your family been making copper? – 450 years ago. – Many generations.
– Yeah, many generations. Six, maybe seven generations. – Six or seven?
– Yeah, yeah. [ Speaks indistinctly ]
– Your father, his father… – Yeah. My grandfather,
my grand-grandfather, – Right here?
– Yeah. – I love your hat.
Can I see your hat? – Yeah, sure.
– So this is a Roma hat? – Yeah, it’s Roma hat. Yeah. – Do you like to be
called Roma or gypsy? – Uh, Roma.
– Roma. What is important
to the Roma people? – For Roma people,
it’s important, it’s important — family. Respect life, my people. Art, music, language.
Pure language. – So you speak a Roma language.
– Yeah. Yeah. – So today,
for the Roma community, what’s the challenge? – Oh, living modern times, and at same time, like, keep traditions. – Pondering the challenges
of maintaining traditions in an aggressively modern world, we leave Transylvania
and drive north. At the fringe of the country, tucked next to
the Ukrainian border, is Romania’s
most isolated region, Maramures. Maramures is fiercely
traditional. Its centuries-old ways endure. Horse carts are commonplace. The men wear distinctive
straw hats. The women are tough
as the land. People work the fields,
as they have for generations. Village roads are lined
with ornate wooden gateways. These gateways are
intentionally elaborate, designed to show off
the family’s wealth. The gates protect
family compounds. Along with a home,
you’ll find a barn, a garden,
and an old-time dipping well. And if you’ve never
tried one of these, locals are happy to demonstrate.
Can you show me the well? Yeah? What do we have? Yeah? Like this? Okay. Nice! Okay, so, in to the horses? There we go. We’re staying
at a farmhouse B&B. Our host ritualistically
closes the gate behind us. People here are superstitious,
especially after dark. It’s dinnertime. But first, we’re
getting a little tour. Traditional Romanians collect their nicest belongings
into one room, designed to impress
their guests. Heirloom dowries
are lovingly displayed. These are bridal gifts
going back generations. Tonight, we’re being treated
to a farmer’s feast. The food is typical
of the region — rustic, delicious,
and farm-fresh. Our host, Anna, is determined
to feed us well. Hearty salads, cabbage rolls. Polenta is a daily
treat around here, and pork is big. In Romania,
like everywhere else, food is especially tasty
when it’s local and fresh. And everything goes better
with the local firewater. All right.
[ Speaks Romanian ] ## After dinner, the evening
continues in the music room, where Anna’s husband
gets out his violin and shares some
rousing folk music. – [ Singing in Romanian ] – [ Singing in Romanian ] – In this traditional community, many homes are busy with small-scale crafts
and industry. Just up the lane,
we meet a family who welcomes us into
their cozy yet busy world. The daughter, using a technique that goes back
to ancient times, gracefully spins
raw wool into yarn. Inside, her mother weaves
the yarn into bolts of cloth, which will eventually be made into heavy woolens
for the winter. Next door, a water mill
does the same work it’s done since medieval times. With the flip of a giant lever, George, the miller,
sets things in motion. All of this powers
his fulling mill, which takes the neighbor’s
woven wool to the next stage. Wooden hammers relentlessly
pummel the fabric. With the help of hot water, the wool is pounded
into a dense felt. The finished product
is heavy and warm, ideal for the frigid
Romanian winter. The waterwheel also powers
grinding stones. To this day, villagers
drop off their grain to be ground into everything
from animal feed to polenta. And George also
has his own still for making the local brandy,
horinca.He stokes the fire
and patiently stirs his heated plum mash
to keep it from burning. After its steamy journey through his low-tech
water cooler, George’s beloved firewater
trickles into his bucket. And you can’t visit
George’s distillery without tasting
the final product. Oh, yeah. Good? Maramures has some of the finest
wooden churches in Europe. Their graceful spires
punctuate the countryside. Soaring skyward, they seem
to connect earth with heaven. The exteriors show off
the quality craftsmanship of local woodworkers
through the centuries. And our guide, Theo, shows us how beautifully decorated
the interiors are. Theo, this is remarkable. And how old is this church? – 17th-century. – How old are all
these beautiful paintings? – 18th-century.
– You know, they look more simple, like what you would see 14th
century in France or Germany. – Yeah, it was
a kind of a delay, or a very
long-lasting tradition. – And the carpets? I’ve never seen a church
with carpets everywhere. – They are gifts donated from
parishioners, from the ladies. – So ladies want to show their
devotion, they bring a carpet. – Yes, it’s a kind of devotion. A kind of sacrifice,
let’s say it. – And these beautiful
embroideries, are these gifts also
from parishioners? – Yes. For example, here,
you can see it bears the donator’s name,
Jurca Pălăguţă. – Oh, that’s the name of
the woman who embroidered this. Even modern churches
are still built in the traditional wooden style. Dating from 1995, this one towers 250 feet, with artistic shinglework
cascading from peak to eaves. Again, the technical mastery of the woodworkers
is on display. Chunky timbers,
precisely dovetailed, keep massive walls
firmly in place. Just up the road is
another unforgettable church, this one with an unusually
joyful cemetery. In 1935, a local woodcarver, reviving an old tradition, began adorning what’s known
as the “Merry Cemetery” with a forest
of vivid memorials. Each one comes
with a whimsical poem and a painting of the departed in the moment of death or doing something
they loved. Even if you can’t
read the poems, the images speak volumes. From a lifetime commitment
to a traditional trade, like weaving, baking,
or woodworking, a more modern one
like television repair, or to a passion for bicycles. A sad, early end
by a lightning strike, or a humorous memorial
to a lifetime spent enduring a nagging
mother-in-law. It’s a poignant
and good-natured celebration of each individual’s life, as well as a chronicle
of village history. And it’s all painted
in cheery blue, to match the heavens
where these souls are headed. Traveling through Romania,
I feel about as far from home as I’ve ever been
while still in Europe. Sure, it’s got some rough edges. But you’ll enjoy amazing sights, endearing people,
and rich memories. Thanks for joining us.
I’m Rick Steves. Until next time,
keep on travelin’. Cha. Cha, cha.
– [ Smooches ] – Do you enjoy
European travel? Rick Steves’ guidebooks
on this destination and many others are available for $9.99 to $29.99, plus shipping and handling, at ricksteves.com. At ricksteves.com, you can view this episode again and more like it. You’ll also find travel news, Rick’s Audio Europe app, blogs, and more information on touring this destination
and others. It’s all at ricksteves.com. – The palace
is surprisingly modern. Built in the 1880s, it came
with all the latest comforts. [ Telephone rings ]
Forced air heating, telephone, you name it.
[ Laughter ] It — Julienne —
Oh, there we go. You’ll find
German-speaking enclaves and delightful German towns as part
of this part of [mumbles] You know what I’m gonna do? There’s a little bird
over there. Boom. Okay.
Can I have a littlehorinca?George! Horinca! I’m empty! – Oh!
– Oh! – This program
is brought to you in part by a passion for better
understanding our world. Public television
brings the world to us in a way that educates, engages,
and inspires. Like travel itself, it can enrich our lives with the best
possible souvenir — a broader perspective. And by… – Bread for the World,
an advocacy organization working to end
hunger and poverty at home and abroad.

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