Sunday, July 26, 2009

Parliament Palace and Nicolae Ceauşescu

Our last sightseeing stop in Bucharest was the biggest one of all. How can you visit Romania without learning a bit about its Communist past, and the dark days of its dictator = Nicolae Ceauşescu?

The Parliament Palace is Bucharest's most famous building, and it dates back to the Ceauşescu era. No one knew what was being built on a hill in the city until after the dictator was shot and killed after being overthrown in a revolution in 1989. The blueprints of his palace were then discovered, and it was cheaper to continue construction then to destroy the building.

The Parliament Palace is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon, and parts of it are still in use today = by the Romanian Parliament, a conference center and a museum. But the building is so huge, that most of it is empty. And besides that, it was not planned correctly = some of the enormous halls cannot be used because of horrendous acoustics. We took the one-hour guided tour.



The palace is shrouded in mystery and rumors. It was built to withstand not only earthquakes but also nuclear attacks. Reportedly, there were secret tunnels which would allow government ministers to escape. We followed our guide through opulent halls. All materials used in the palace's construction were from Romania, and apparently there was no pink marble left in the country afterwards. Huge chandeliers, fancy tapestries, curtains 20 meters high, hand-made carpets, and golden ceilings. Fancy and big! You were not allowed to leave the tour, which is good, because you could easily get lost.


A look out from the balcony at the wide avenue which is considered Romania's Champs-Élysées = and in fact, Ceauşescu made sure his avenue was 6 meters longer than the Paris original.


Although planned during Romania's Communist era, the palace was finished after the country had become a democracy. As seat of the Romanian Parliament, the palace now serves as a symbol of the country's democratic freedom. (How's that for an uplifting finale to this post!)

The Museum of the Romanian Peasant


A Metro ride brought us the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. Inside we found a colorful display of Romanian culture, and of how the people lived in villages around the country. There were displays of pottery, church icons, textiles and farm utensils. On the second floor, the museum became even more fascinating, as it included an entire wooden village home, and a huge, two-story water mill.

There were mannequins dressed in the local clothing typical of the different villages, and also examples of the clothing of the other countries in the Balkan.

What amused us a lot was a book of Romanian peasant superstitions. Enjoy these examples:

If you light up your fire on Monday, the sparrow hawk will come to hunt your hens.
If you throw hen feathers in the fire, you'll be full of pimples in no time.
If you kindle the fire with wild rose twigs, the cow's tits will burst.

Jewish Bucharest

On Sunday morning we walked towards the old Jewish quarter of Bucharest. Choral Temple, built in 1857, was undergoing renovations so we couldn't go inside.


The man in the photograph above didn't speak English, but understood where our next destination was, and gave us directions in broken Hebrew. "שמאלה, שמאלה" he said, leading us to the corner. "To the left, and left again." As we approached the street listed on the map, the driver of a large car backing out of a parking lot also indicated to the left. And that is where we found the Great Synagogue of Bucharest.


Bucharest was home to some 40,000 Jews at the beginning of the 20th Century, and its population was not spared the horrors of the Holocaust. Inside the Great Synagogue was a museum telling the tragic story of Romania's Jews in the Holocaust.



The Great Synagogue of Bucharest from the outside.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Romania's little Prague = the city of Brasov

Our final destination on our trip to Transylvania was the Saxon city of Brasov. The skies had clouded up, and we even felt a few drops of rain as we visited the city, which reminded us a lot of Prague. Take a look at some of these pictures and you will see why. Our first stop was St. Nicholas's Cathedral.


Walking towards the central square, we passed the synagogue.


One of the side streets was very narrow, and according to Andrei, may be the narrowest street in Europe. Leave your elephants at home.


The Black Church was built in the early 1400s, and got its name from a 1689 fire which blackened its walls. An organ concert was taking place inside.



With Andrei outside the Black Church.


And now, the town square itself, Piata Sfatului.


According to Lonely Planet, witches were once burned and prisoners torturted in the Council House in the square. We didn't see witches, but we did see at least 3 brides and their grooms on our visit to Brasov.


On the distant hill, Brasov (pronounced Brashov) was spelled out. Not exactly a Hollywood sign, but maybe suitable for Romania's little Prague.

Bran Castle and the Dracula connection

We drove to the town of Bran, where a castle had been built in the 1400s to protect the region from frequent Turkish attacks. Jump ahead a few hundred years, and an Irish man named Bram Stoker wrote a horror novel about a count named Dracula in a far off place called Transylvania.

Legend connected Stoker's character to a very real Transylvanian ruler = Vlad the Impaler. Vlad was revered by his countrymen for fighting off the Turks, but he just happened to impose very painful punishments on his enemies. Vlad's father was given a title of the Order of Dragons, but the peasants didn't know what dragons were, so it was shorted to "dracul". Or something like that.

Long after Romania's Queen Maria renovated the castle in the early 1900s, someone made a very wise, financial move, connecting the castle to the Dracula legend. And so, a tourist destination was created!




Bran Castle is hardly opulent like Peles Castle. In fact, all of the sparse furnishings were only recently brought in, so any connection to Queen Maria and her summer residence is purely coincidental.





The modern town of Bran thrives on the Dracula legend, and you can find almost anything with Vlad the Impaler's image, vampires, or blood stains for sale in the shops at the foot of the castle.

Our trip to Transylvania: Peles Castle

We arranged a one-day trip into Transylvania with Balkan Tours, an agency that provides escorted private tours of both Romania and Bulgaria. Our guide, Andrei, picked us up at the hotel Saturday morning, and we drove north out of Bucharest. Andrei provided a wealth of information about Romania, its history and culture, and about the city of Bucharest and the sites of Transylvania that we visited. We learned a lot from him!

Our first stop was in the mountain resort town of Sinaia, where the Peles Castle was built as a royal residence. When it was finished in the 1880s, it was a very modern building with electricity and its own central vacuum cleaning system.


We took a tour inside the castle, which was quite stunning. We had to put slippers over our shoes so that we wouldn't damage the wooden floors and carpets.

You'll have to excuse us if we don't remember the names of the Romanian royal family. One thing, for certain, is that they had a beautiful summer home. While Bucharest was in the midst of a heat wave, it was cool up in the mountains.



When you think of Transylvania, fog and darkness might come to mind, but in July, the Transylvania we saw had blue skies and green mountains.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Romania = Arrival in Bucharest

A weekend in Romania? Sure, why not. Bucharest is only 50 minutes' flight away from Sofia, and we flew there after work on Friday. It just happened to be the hottest weekend of the year, and the Bulgarian Air plane's air conditioning didn't work until well after takeoff. There were only 10 passengers on the plane, and one of them joked to the stewardess: "Can you please open the window?" It was hot.

We stayed at the lovely Rembrandt Hotel in the historic center of the city. Unfortunately, the historical center of the city is undergoing massive street renovations, and there is no end to the gutted streets in sight.


For dinner we went to the nearby Caru cu Bere restaurant for some traditional Romanian cuisine. There was actually a performance of Romanian folk dancing inside, but we sat outside on the street, where the temperature was a sizzling 37 degrees Celsius at 10 pm.
What is traditional Romanian cuisine? One guidebook said you don't come to Romania for the food, but all the food we ate in Romania was very good. Jodie had the delicious Duck Breast with Oranges, Cabbage and Horseraddish. I started with a Mashed Bean Salad, and then had Lamb Chops with Serbian Boiled Rice. The Apple Strudel for dessert made it hard to walk back the short distance to our hotel.

Monday, July 20, 2009

My Favorite Bulgarian Fruit


Not that there's too much competition. (Ellis)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Jodie cooks Bulgarian

On our recent trip to the Rila Monastery, we stopped in the village of Rila and Jodie bought a ceramic pot, pictured below.


Jodie cooked our Shabbat lunch in the pot = chicken and vegetables. The important tip is to put the ceramic pot, chicken and vegetables into a cold oven, and let everything warm up together.


The result was quite tasty!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Topli Zakuski

There is a small bakery on our street with the name Topli Zakuski = Warm Breakfasts. On Saturday I (Ellis) went there early in the morning and bought a Kashkavalka = a pastry with salty cheese. Tasty, and very filling.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Rendevous on the office porch

Jodie and I work in the Mandarin Office Center (my office moved there about 2 months ago). Jodie works on the fourth floor, while my office is on the third floor. By chance, both Jodie and my desks are right next to doors which lead to a porch. The porch is where the employees of our respective companies go for their cigarette breaks. When I go outside, I can see Jodie when she's outside her office on her porch.


There seems to be some unique acoustics involved, because when Jodie steps onto her porch, on the fourth floor, her voice carries, even when she's not talking loudly. Sitting at my desk in my office, I know when Jodie is outside, and I can join her on the porch. Except for the fact that we are one floor apart, our outside breaks on the porch can be shared.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Back home after visit home

We returned to Bulgaria Wednesday night after our one-week vacation in Israel. It was very hot in Israel, and Tel Aviv was very humid, and there were no sudden thunderstorms and downpours like there are in Sofia to chase away the heat. Yet, a visit to Israel is a visit home, and it was wonderful to be with our family and to see our friends.

As Jodie would say, we went to Israel to recharge our batteries for the next period of living in Bulgaria and away from everyone. It makes it easier when we realize that in just a month's time, Reut, Merav and Erez will come to visit us here, and to see our lives in Sofia.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Beli Iskar Nature Trail

We drove south, out of the village of Beli Iskar. The Beli Iskar Nature Trail is a 9.5 kilometer long stretch of forest walks along the banks of the Iskar stream. The road was paved, and we followed the stream into the Rila Mountains.


We passed a herd of goats and cows.



On the trail, there were a total of 7 wooden foot bridges, and we stopped the car frequently to cross over the stream.








The cows were still going out to pasture, but our visit to the Beli Iskar Nature Trail had come to an end, and we drove north, back to Sofia.