Brasov Bells / Castle Bran (with Cheese)

Trip Start Sep 01, 2006
Trip End Sep 11, 2006

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Saturday, September 9, 2006

Friday, September 8, 2006
Brasov Bells / Castle Bran (with Cheese) / Birthday Party in Sinaia
Midnight in Sinaia

Dear Readers:

I awaken at 7:00am to the tolling of the church bells in Brasov, but stay in bed until my alarm goes off at 7:30am. We don't have far to travel today, and since we had a very early start yesterday we are going to have a relaxing morning and leave the hotel for our walking tour of Brasov at 10:30am. I post my blog from last night, enjoying the views of the old city from my hotel window as I work. I am thrilled that the last two hotels have offered free internet access directly from my room! I'll soon be back in Bucharest paying about $25.00 per day for the privilege.

The most senior member of our group, Tom Hoemig, is ticking off yet another year today, turning 73 (I only publish this with his permission). I begin the daylong birthday celebration with a big smooch at breakfast. He used to work for the International Lesbian and Gay Association in Brussels. At the beginning of this year a local English language magazine in Brussels described him as the Doyen of the Brussels gay community. I dub today the Day of the Doyen.

Our walking tour begins with a visit to the main square. I can barely pay attention to our guide, being distracted by the scene of a precious little boy in a train conductor's hat chasing after pigeons. I manage to get some great photos.

We visit the famous Black Church, which got the name after its appearance caused by a fire in 1689. The fire miraculously spared a fresco of the Virgin Mary, only blackening the color of her clothes. Built between 1383 and 1477, it is the largest Gothic church between Vienna and Istanbul and is still used by German Lutherans to this day. It has a massive organ, incredible Turkish rugs hanging from the balconies, and the largest bell in Romania. I capture a brief movie as the bell tolls 11:00am so you can hear it.

We walk through the curved, narrow streets to the Key Gate of the city, and stop to photograph another nearby gate that is even more decorative. The defensive wall has a charming walkway between the wall and a babbling stream. It is a favorite evening hangout for young people looking for romance. Trails lead across the stream into the nearby forest. You get the idea.

We return to the hotel and check out of our rooms at noon, continuing our tour with the minibus. Before leaving the city we visit St. Nicholas' Cathedral; very picturesque with lots of turrets. Most impressive, however, is the Romanian School Museum beside the church. We sit in the students' seats as our guide translates an explanation of the educational system in medieval times. Only a few of the smartest boys from a village would be sent to school, supported by the village. Their education wouldn't begin until about age 20, by which time their character would be known. One boy was trained to be a priest, one to read and write in order to keep the village records and make documents, and another was taught mathematics and calculations so he could oversee business. The different courses of study took different lengths of time, but were all completed in less than one year! The museum has an amazing collection of important old books that really astonishes me.

Climbing the mountains surrounding Brasov we reach the ski resort of Poina Brasov and catch a glimpse of the hotel where we were originally scheduled to stay. We are all grateful that I changed the program at the last minute to have us stay in lively Brasov rather than in the beautiful (but quiet) natural setting of the mountains.

At about a quarter to three in the afternoon we are approaching the Castle Bran, and our guide is launching into his explanation of the history of the castle. We have not yet had lunch, and it becomes clear that he is about to take us to the castle without a lunch stop. I notice that we've just gone by a supermarket, and holler for a lunch stop from the back of the bus. What follows is an impromptu picnic on tables and benches in the parking lot of the Wolf supermarket, as huge inflated cows and a hungry stray dog look on. We make do with bread, cheese, fruit and yogurt. The dog makes out like crazy, although her diet consists largely of cheese this afternoon!

Castle Bran is probably the most busy tourist spot we have encountered during this entire tour, with tons of tacky tourist souvenir shops at the entrance. The castle has become associated with the Dracula legend, primarily for its looks I think, but it really had nothing to do with Vlad Tepes except for the "possibility" that he spent a few nights here while he was running from the Turks in 1462. Saxons from Brasov built it in 1382 to defend the Bran pass against the Turks.

While touring the castle our guide's true feelings about Queen Marie came out. His descriptions of her as a spoiled, impossible-to-please woman has me eager to research more facts about her life. She was not even a Romanian, being a great granddaughter of Queen Victoria. She didn't really like the castle, and only visited it a few times even though the people went to great lengths to suit her wishes and make it appealing.

After King Michael abdicated in 1947 the royal family disappeared from Romania with a good part of the national treasure, leaving the people to suffer through decades of Communist rule. After the revolution in 1989, the family reappeared again to claim rights to the castle, and the government gave it back to them. Our guide makes no bones about the fact that he thinks giving it back to them is a terrible shame.

It is now decorated as it was in Queen Marie's time, even though she really didn't like it there, and every room has a photo of her posing somewhere in the castle-like she was using it as a prop to get the people to love her (which they did). Our guide is quite incensed that the hundreds of years of its history prior to the petulant queen are simply ignored and it is now presented to the public almost as a memorial tribute to her.

We shop for a while in the tacky souvenir shops at the entrance to the castle and then continue to our hotel for overnight in the mountain resort town of Sinaia. We're in our hotel by 6:00pm, and meet an hour later to begin our birthday celebration with a round of drinks at the hotel's beautiful bar. I present a birthday card signed by the group members, and a couple of really wacky gifts: A refrigerator magnet that shows four tough guys in suits with the cautionary inscription "The Gay Mafia - They'll break the legs of your coffee table", and a local whisk broom decorated with adhered nuts and grains of Romania, all topped by a small picture of Jesus near the handle. It is intended for display to bring prosperity and good luck.

We enjoy an excellent dinner in the hotel's restaurant, followed by the presentation of a birthday cake festooned with one sparkler that shoots up vertically and seems like it will never go out. The cake is a fantastic French confection of chocolate cake layered with chocolate mousse. I immediately lapse into a sugar coma, but drag myself up to the room and race back down with my laptop so I can show the group highlights of the slide show I developed for Toto's 15th anniversary trip in Newfoundland.

The evening is a great success, as the birthday boy was completely surprised that I even knew it was his birthday, and that we had gone to so much effort to celebrate it. He says it is among the best birthdays he can remember, and that is all that matters.

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